Since we launched the A Way Home Canada coalition in 2015, communities, provinces and even countries around the world have adopted the A Way Home name as a way to attach themselves to this growing international movement for change. What we seek is a fundamental shift in how we respond to youth homelessness, from a predominantly crisis response to one that focuses on prevention and sustained exits from homelessness. To make this shift happen, we must work across the systems that drive young people into homelessness to ensure they are part of the solutions. Over the upcoming months, I’ll continue to showcase efforts to do just that; and this month, our spotlight shifts to Kelowna, B.C. We’ve worked for years with amazing partners across B.C., and have supported Kelowna in various ways to get here, but the majority of the credit goes to the dedication and commitment of the community to take collective action.

I reached out to Belinda Jackson, the project coordinator for A Way Home Kelowna with some questions about Kelowna’s vision and approach for developing a targeted youth strategy embedded in the community’s homelessness strategy writ large. Kelowna is home to a population of 127,380 (based on 2016 Census) and is located in the beautiful Okanagan Valley in B.C. The convenor of this project is the Canadian Mental Health Association – Kelowna branch and Belinda’s work is guided by a steering committee. This steering committee consists of representatives from the Bridge Youth and Family Services, Okanagan Boys and Girls Club, United Way, Central Okanagan Foundation, Canadian Mental Health Association – Kelowna branch, Westbank First Nations, Ministry of Child and Family Development and the City of Kelowna. The steering committee is led by two co-chairs: Mike Gawliuk (a long time member of the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness), Canadian Mental Health Association – Kelowna branch and Diane Entwistle, Okanagan Boys and Girls Club.

Here is my Q & A with Belinda Jackson:

Why did Kelowna decide to launch AWH Kelowna?
Youth service providers in Kelowna have been collaborating on key issues in the area for years. A workshop in 2016 with a number of community partners identified youth homelessness as a key priority for service providers. Funding was then secured from an anonymous donor to bring together the required resources to undertake the process for developing an A Way Home Kelowna initiative to address youth homelessness.

There are a limited number of options for youth seeking housing options in our community with a handful of organisations offering youth specific housing services. In a community with a 0.2% vacancy rate and rents averaging $1,043 per month (CMHC 2017), finding suitable, safe, and affordable housing is a major challenge. In addition, for young people struggling with substance use concerns, there are no local residential treatment options available. The current opioid crisis in the province of B.C. underscores the urgency to act and meet the needs of young people struggling in this area.

While a decision had been made to develop a local A Way Home Kelowna community plan, the City of Kelowna had identified addressing homelessness as a key priority area. This resulted in a Social Development Manager to undertake this work. This is also the city representative on the A Way Home Kelowna Steering Committee. The timing of the City and the youth service providers could not have been more perfect. This presented an opportunity to truly embed A Way Home Kelowna into a broader strategy to address homelessness in our community.

Kelowna’s last Point-in-Time (PiT) count (which was conducted in February 2016) identified that 15% (n=15) of the total homeless population (n=233) were under the age of 24, slightly lower than the Canadian average of 20%. However the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness highlights that PiT counts often underestimate the true number of young people that are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, as they are more likely than adults to make up the “hidden homeless,” with many couchsurfing or in other forms of temporary, unstable, or unsafe housing.

What’s the vision guiding your work?
The vision of Journey Home is to have a clear place to go for support if someone has lost or is about to lose their home. This means taking on a “no wrong door” approach, meaning any agency can connect an individual with the services they need. A Way Home Kelowna adopts that vision with a specific focus on youth and ensuring a fully integrated system of care to meet their diverse needs.

What do you hope to achieve?
While we are hoping to achieve functional zero for youth homelessness and homelessness generally in our community, there are four key actions that we will endeavor to achieve in this process:

· Enhance collaboration and partnerships in the community for systems level interventions

· Launch and implement a community strategy to address and prevent youth homelessness

· Pilot innovative practices to address youth homelessness

· Engage youth with lived experience early and often

Can you talk about the importance of aligning the dedicated youth strategy with the broader community systems plan to prevent and end homelessness?
When you consider what the ideal system of care looks like in any community, you really need to think about the necessity for care to be delivered along a continuum that is truly seamless. Aligning a dedicated youth strategy with the broader community systems plan helps address the traditional gaps in the system between the youth and adult serving sectors.

Journey Home, the community’s broader homelessness strategy driven by an appointed group of community members and facilitated by the City of Kelowna, will embed and integrate a youth lens throughout. This provides a unique opportunity for AWH Kelowna to align with the Journey Home initiative, ensuring not only an ongoing mandate to deliver but the ability to ensure AWH Kelowna maintains a prominent profile within the umbrella of Journey Home. There are few instances in Canada where a long-term homelessness strategy will encompass a youth component in the plan development process and will ideally serve as a blueprint for the process moving forward. By incorporating youth at the get-go, it will ensure the needs of youth are prioritized as a key area of focus and that the unique responses required to address their needs are front and centre.

What’s the role of youth with lived experience in your process?
Youth with lived experience are the true experts on the matter of youth homelessness. We are currently undertaking a series of youth focus groups aimed at understanding:

1. Their definition of “home”

2. Their experience with the youth system in Kelowna

3. Improvements that can be made within the current system in Kelowna

4. How they would like to be involved moving forward

This process will ensure youth with lived experience are the true change makers to our youth system in Kelowna. Whether this is in the form of a youth expert committee or action group, the ideal end result will be that youth with lived experience will lead the implementation process in our community for the youth component. Honouring youth rights and desires, we are working together to determine the best ways to move forward together.

Since AWH Kelowna is embedded into the Journey Home process, we have the opportunity to leverage the work the Journey Home team is doing with those with lived experience. A Lived Experience Circle has been convened that includes all age ranges and individuals from diverse backgrounds to help identify the challenges and priorities moving forward with the Journey Home plan.

What are some early learnings from your process to date?
Kelowna is a community that is primed for action and ready to have the tough conversations in order to make progress on key issues. I’ve truly been heartened by the enthusiasm and passion of the community and its desire to tackle this issue in a thoughtful and holistic manner. This was recently highlighted at our design labs which focused on 24 priority issues identified by the community at our community summits in January. Community participants were very eager to tackle this issue in an inclusive and respectful manner.

A key challenge to date is encouraging certain stakeholders to join the discussion to be active participants in this process. There is a process of empowerment, education and relationship building that is essential to addressing the needs of all players. Part of the empowerment and education piece is highlighting the success stories in our community and where we are currently having a positive impact.

We also have a twitter account, we encourage you to follow us as we progress on journey: @awayhomekelowna