I am excited about the release of the Youth Reconnect Program Guide by the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab.  As we are all in the midst of this pandemic; it seems that more and more people are realising that homelessness is a systemic problem and not a problem or deficiency of individuals.  Recently, I was asked by our local newspaper what planning we have done in light of COVID-19, and I honestly answered that we started planning for COVID when we launched Youth Reconnect over a decade ago.  In 2007, the RAFT was operating a typical youth hostel providing overnight stays for around 500 youth per year and growing. This growth was unsustainable; we simply didn’t have the capacity to increase the number of beds in our building.  In desperation, we looked for a solution and through a review of our data, discussions with partners, and informed by our youth we developed a program that we know as Youth Reconnect.  Desperation led to innovation, which became hope, and eventually awe as we witnessed a drastic and sustained decrease in the number of young people requiring our beds. By 2013, we achieved a 50% reduction in shelter usage and currently we’re providing 70% less beds than in 2007, approximately 130-150 young people access our shelter for overnight stays.

A blog post really isn’t the best place to review all the technical and operational elements for implementing a program. If you are interested in starting a Youth Reconnect program, you will soon have access to the above mentioned Youth Reconnect Program Guide but we also have a short video on our program at www.theraft.ca/site/youth-reconnect and finally please feel free to contact me directly at mike@thearft.ca. In short, RAFT’s Youth Reconnect program works with local schools in the Niagara region to help identify students who might be at risk of losing their housing. A referral is made to one of our workers; we meet with the student within 24hrs and focus on stabilising their housing.

What I am going to write about are some thoughts I believe are worth considering if you are looking to start a program, or more broadly move to prevention-focused service.

Key Considerations

The Unexamined Life isn’t Worth Living

While this is true of our personal journeys, it is equally true of our professional ones. I am amazed at how many programs are conceived and started without the slightest evidence beyond the anecdotal.  Fair enough, there are people who dedicate their lives to research and amassing evidence. Few of us have the time or skill to properly conduct examinations.  We live in the real world where we react more often to events than we plan for them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make efforts to understand the basic circumstances of the people we serve. In my case, when developing Youth Reconnect a couple of facts were critical and importantly, proved our anecdotal stories wrong. In one case, we believed that the majority of our shelter users were residents of the City of St. Catharines, however with only the barest of fact checking we found that the majority of shelter users arrived from the largely rural communities surrounding St. Catharines. Secondly, we believed that the majority of shelter users were also high school drop outs, when in fact the majority were attending high school and only dropped out because they became homeless. For the kids who migrated to the city they did so because they had to make a choice between staying in school and having shelter! These two relatively easy to discover facts forced us to re-examine our entire service model, and where once we were a Youth Hostel in the City of St. Catharines, we’re now primarily a provider of Homelessness Prevention Services for Youth for the Niagara region.  If I could only recommend one action it would be to please understand the people you serve against the assumptions (or more likely the assumptions of the people that came before you when the services were created).

Culture Eats Strategy

The RAFT is now a medium size agency that is the main provider of services supporting youth who are homeless or precariously housed in Niagara.  This wasn’t always the case, back in 2006, RAFT was a tiny organization with 6 staff and an unbalanced budget – we were broke.  I believe that there are many youth-serving agencies that can relate, and I think the idea of making a change, adding a new program model/philosophy of service is just too overwhelming to consider. Counterintuitively however, I believe this may be the best time to make the change. Firstly, a smaller staff, an intimate staff, is much easier to motivate and it’s also easier to know who is willing to support the change or who isn’t.  Secondly, a bold new vision that offers real progress is very attractive to funders, donors, and staff.  Simply put, you can have the best vision for the future, but if the people around you are too invested in the old model or are resistant to change your project will fail. A bigger agency exponentially increases the number of people you have to motivate: staff, funders, donors and the youth you look to serve. Change at any size is possible but because you are small and underfunded shouldn’t be a reason not to try, and in fact, it might be exactly the right time.

Systemic Change: We are Legion – Be the Pebble

I have sat in many rooms where system change is being discussed and what I’ve noticed is that most often we are arguing that some other system needs to change – Child protection, Mental Health, Justice, Hospital, Housing, Funding, etc. This is something that I am as guilty of as the next person; the “if only they…” I think one thing that the pandemic has shown is that we are the system.  System change is a massive proposition where one change may require hundreds of other changes to accommodate and requires change by much bigger, more respected, and better funded organizations. I’m not denying that things would be much easier if only they made changes that allowed me to make my changes.  However, that is also our strength: everything is interconnected, it’s a system. If I make a change and stick to it, the other parts of the system will have to change to accommodate. Consider all the systems that need to work together that allow you to walk; now consider how difficult walking becomes if you get a pebble in your shoe, how much accommodation is required to keep walking. Now, in the real world, I’d just take my shoe off and remove the pebble. It is possible that the system will just ostracize me, but unlike a shoe, agencies are much more integrated and critical to the system; it would be more akin to removing your foot.

Be the pebble.

Thank you.