Can we really reimagine the way we respond to youth homelessness? Through social innovation, the Making the Shift Youth Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS) is doing just that!

MtS DEMS is showcasing how programs focused on prevention, like Housing First for Youth (HF4Y), lead to improved wellbeing for young people. These programs also teach us the value of measuring outcomes beyond whether a young person is housed or not. Housing stability is key, and we should be working to help young people make rapid exits from homelessness, but helping a young person find housing is not the only outcome that contributes to their wellbeing. Focusing on other outcomes in addition to wellbeing will not only better support young people to maintain their housing, but will also build their resilience and assets. MtS DEMS’ HF4Y demonstration project in Ottawa is an excellent example of success in outcomes beyond just housing.

In Ottawa, the MtS DEMS HF4Y demonstration project has shown very positive outcomes in the area of attachment to education. Since launching just over a year and a half ago, 6 young people have been supported through the program to enroll in post-secondary education this fall, 1 young person is enrolled for the winter semester, and 2 more young people are exploring registering in the winter term. That’s 9 young people who identified completing their post-secondary education as a goal they wanted to achieve, and who are now working to accomplish that goal!

Staff at the Ottawa demonstration project worked with each of these young people for weeks – building trustful relationships with them, encouraging them, attending appointments with them in order to access student support services, and so much more. They didn’t just support these young people to find housing, but have also worked with these young people to identify and work towards education goals.

Mandy Faulkner, who leads the MtS DEMS HF4Y Ottawa demonstration project, explains:

“Many of the youth who enrolled in post-secondary identified that it was the increase in their housing stability and overall life and financial stability that created the space for them to pursue their education goals. Although they are just shy of completing their first month of classes, youth are already sharing about their increased social network and their sense of connection to a new community. Social determinants of health include education and social supports, so while youth are increasing their stability through obtaining and maintaining housing, the pursuit of education is contributing to their overall sense of wellbeing.”

In Without a Home: National Youth Homelessness Survey, one of the key recommendations for communities and municipalities is to enable young people experiencing homelessness to re-engage with education, training, and employment. Without a Home also showed that 53.2% of the 1,103 young people surveyed had dropped out of school, but of those young people, 73.9% would like to return to school. Equipping young people with the tools necessary to reattach, engage and be successful in school must be a tool in the toolbelts of practitioners.

Youth experiencing homelessness do not lack the motivation to pursue education, but they do need support to re-engage with school, to achieve success, and to move on to higher levels of education and training if they desire. Not only does educational achievement contribute to better labour market participation, but engagement in school is associated with less dependence on government benefits, lower involvement in crime over the lifetime, and better outcomes in the areas of health and wellbeing.

A core principle within HF4Y is to provide young people with “individualized and client-driven supports with no time limits”. Each young person is unique, so their needs and goals will be unique beyond just needing stable housing. Keep in mind – young people may want to go back to school, improve their communication skills, improve relationships with family, find employment, access mental health supports, or they may just want a new version of community. In order to prevent youth homelessness, we have to ensure that programs focus not only on seeing success in the number of young people who have found housing, but also in all of the positive steps young people are taking towards positive development. Success is about providing young people with the supports that they need to develop their strengths, and to work towards their own goals for success.

Successes like this from MtS DEMS show us that while housing is important, it’s not only about housing. Getting youth housed is often the easiest step. The truly hard work begins once a young person finds housing stability. That means addressing their specific needs, at their pace, in their order and with their direction.

Ultimately, we need to picture young people without our support. This positive youth development approach:

  • Identifies the youth’s personal strengths in order to build self-esteem and a positive sense of self.
  • Works to improve the youth’s communication and problem solving skills.
  • Enhances and builds natural supports, including family relationships.
  • Assists the youth in personal goal setting.
  • Helps the youth to access educational opportunities and identify personal interests.

As young people develop skills, confidence, and the financial stability necessary to achieve independence, they will continue to surprise you. Walk with them and let them chart their path all while measuring outcomes that really matter!