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Impact Hub Ottawa

Housing First for Youth hits the streets to confront the realities of homeless young people

By Andrew Monro on March 6, 2018

Andrew Monro is Apt613’s correspondent at Impact Hub Ottawa, writing about the many innovators that call Hub home. Hub is a co-working space at 123 Slater Street for projects with a positive local and global impact.

“When we talk about youth experiencing homelessness, it can be easy to look at the things that are missing, or things that have gone wrong, but we also need to recognize the strength all young people hold: their passions, their dreams, their skills, their knowledge.”

Mike Bulthuis has been working on issues related to housing and homelessness for nearly 20 years. In his new role as Director of Making the Shift, a Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, he and his colleagues are testing approaches to tackle the pervasive challenge of youth homelessness in Canada. One part of the project includes the launch of Housing First for Youth initiatives, including here in Ottawa.

Launched in April 2017, Making the Shift is a joint initiative of York University’s Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada and the MaRs Centre for Impact Investing, in collaboration with community partners in ten cities. The project is backed with support by the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment Strategy program and focuses on building evidence around approaches that prevent and end a young person’s homelessness, something that the current national homelessness strategy is not (yet) able to prioritize.

“To really end homelessness, there needs to be preventative action and that means prioritizing young people,” Mike says.

While Housing First, part of the current national strategy, focuses on adults experiencing chronic homelessness, Housing First for Youth is both separate and iterative on their precedent.

Their focus is not just on finding youth a place to live, but finding them a permanent place to act as a home and establish themselves as they grow into adults.

Mike puts it simply: “Housing stability is a foundation for a healthy transition to adulthood. It enables freedom to experiment, to explore and to develop through adolescence. Housing First for Youth enables a positive youth development orientation.”

Housing First for Youth is also notable for having emerged right here in Canada. While such initiatives of youth-centric support have been deployed in several countries in Europe to great success, our evidence base here in Canada is still limited. The model is more than just providing housing for youth, it is based on several principles:

  • That youth have a right to housing with no preconditions.
  • That they need to be given a choice, a voice, and the ability to determine their own direction in life.
  • That the model be focussed on positive youth development and wellness orientation.
  • That supports be individualized, client driven, and not have time limits attached to them.
  • That it is socially inclusive and integrated into the communities where programs are run.

As they approach the end of their first year, Mike talks about the need to do a robust research evaluation of the program, with an emphasis on developing an evidence-base for policy that both proves the viability of the model, as well as helps encourage more organizations and institutions to contribute and get involved. Housing First for Youth is open to forming relationships with government, with landlords and with non-profit social service and child welfare providers to better help homeless youth.

One of the really outstanding goals of Making the Shift and of the partners involved in Housing First for Youth is a focus on listening and learning directly from young people, who often inspire them in their work with their resilience and their expertise.

“It is important to listen, because homeless youth are the experts on what they need to survive and succeed. Communication is super important, because we can only really do this collaboratively with youth; our timelines need to allow for this learning.” Mike emphasizes that this is especially true with Indigenous communities, whose youth are vastly overrepresented within homelessness statistics and whose culture must ground responses.

One of the things that Making the Shift has worked hard to shift is the often entrenched sense of lack or deprivation with youth – “you can look at things that might be missing in their lives, but you can also look at what they’re good at, what their strengths, passions, dreams, and goals are. These are amazing starting points.”

In Ottawa, Housing First for Youth isn’t the result of any one organization: Mike is incredibly grateful for the work and support of A Way Home Ottawa, the Youth Services Bureau, CMHA Ottawa, and the John Howard Society. They are also grateful to Impact Hub Ottawa, which has been a space for them to meet many organizations and social entrepreneurs. Mike, who is at Impact Hub regularly, invites anyone in Ottawa who is focused on at-risk or homeless youth, or the health and well-being of youth, to come say hello.