Research on youth homelessness indicates the dire need for a preventative approach. Once homeless, young people often face exposure to violence, profound mental health distress, barriers to education and employment, and tremendous difficulty obtaining affordable and sustainable housing and supports. We also know even a brief experience of homelessness can have profound consequences. By all accounts, prevention makes sense. But is there evidence it works?

Our recent report, Preventing Youth Homelessness – An International Review of Evidence, found some important evidence-based interventions, as well as some promising areas of practice, policy, and legislation in youth homelessness prevention. This blog provides a concise overview of this review.

What works?

The evidence for youth homelessness prevention is thin in some areas and substantial in others, with research and evaluation struggling to keep up with the preventative interventions happening on the ground. Our evidence review on youth homelessness prevention was organised along a 5-part typology, which draws on the work of Gaetz and Dej (2017): structural prevention, systems prevention, early intervention, eviction prevention, and housing stabilisation.

1. Structural Prevention – Structural prevention involves working upstream to address structural and systemic factors that contribute to housing precarity and expose individuals and their families to the risk of homelessness. Our review indicated that interventions that focus on reducing poverty, increasing income, and reducing conflict amongst families in poverty are effective at reducing many of the factors that put youth at risk of homelessness. In addition, our review shows that increasing the availability of affordable housing stock demonstrably contributes to reductions in homelessness amongst children, youth, and families. A good example of this is the approach pursued by the Finnish Youth Housing Association.

2. Systems Prevention – System prevention tackles the institutional and systems failures that either indirectly or directly contribute to the risk of homelessness We found that youth homelessness can be effectively reduced through interventions that improve housing stability for youth transitioning from public systems. These include: youth-led discharge planning that initiates early; family mediation and reunification prior to, during, and after exits from public systems; financial and housing supports following exits; and trauma-informed case management. Systems prevention is best supported by an integrated, cross-system approach focused on dismantling the system failures that contribute to youth homelessness. A good example of this is the UK’s Common Assessment Framework for coordinated entry.

3. Early Intervention – Early intervention involves policies, practices, and interventions that help individuals and families who are at extreme risk of or who have recently experienced homelessness, obtain the supports needed to retain their current housing or rapidly access new and appropriate housing. Evidence on early intervention indicated school-based prevention interventions are particularly effective at preventing youth homelessness, especially when youth-centred, family-focused, and grounded in community-based partnerships (e.g., Youth Reconnect). Screening techniques for the early identification of housing precarity and other issues are important components of early intervention. Promising evidence exists for the COSS (Community of School and Youth Services) model used by the Geelong Project (Australia). Respite housing models, such as Host Homes, combined with family mediation and reunification supports, shows considerable promise for youth homelessness prevention.

4. Eviction Prevention – Eviction prevention includes programs and strategies designed to keep individuals and families at risk of eviction in their home and that help them avoid entering into homelessness. There is strong evidence demonstrating the short-term effectiveness of eviction prevention interventions for families and individuals, specifically financial assistance, such as rent subsidies, and legal representation. These interventions are effective even when minimal supports or subsidies are provided.

5. Housing Stabilisation – Housing stabilisation involves initiatives and supports for people who have experienced homelessness so that people can exit homelessness in a timely way and never experience it again. Evidence indicates that youth-focused housing models, including Housing First for Youth and the Foyer model, show considerable promise for preventing youth homelessness. In order to implement these housing models, many communities need to increase the availability of affordable, youth-specific housing. Strengthening family, natural supports, and community connections for youth is a critical component of effective housing stabilisation efforts. Interventions that include family mediation, family counselling, and family reunification report stronger outcomes. Housing-led responses are more effective when they provide supports to address youths’ wellbeing, social inclusion, connection with community and culture, and engagement with education, employment, and training.

What’s next?

We hope that Preventing Youth Homelessness - An International Review of Evidence will assist governments in making the shift to youth homelessness prevention. We encourage governments to use the document to test the strength and weaknesses of their existing policies and identify their policy gaps. The path forward should be grounded in preventative policy and practice that pays close attention to the insights and expertise of young people with lived experience of homelessness. Communities want to innovate, want to feel validated, and need permission to move forward. It is incumbent upon governments to make space for all three.