Youth homelessness has devastating effects on the health, safety, mental health, and well-being of young people who are transitioning to early adulthood. Without a proper support system, these effects are likely to be long-lasting and can have a profound impact on a young person’s life. Youth homelessness prevention must account for the unique challenges of emerging adulthood. Providing housing stability for young people is imperative, as is fostering a sense of belonging and identity.

Much has changed in recent years. Fortunately, there have been significant developments in youth homelessness prevention models, informed by our efforts here in Canada, and they are making positive impacts internationally. Program models such as Housing First for Youth (HF4Y), Family and Natural Supports (FNS), and Youth Reconnect (YR) emphasize implementing sustainable solutions to youth homelessness while strengthening young peoples’ connections to natural guidance from their families and communities. With increased investment and support from communities, these models continue to evolve and expand, helping to provide much-needed support for young people. Investing in youth homelessness prevention initiatives is key to reducing the number of young people who experience or are at risk of homelessness; the long-term impact of these initiatives can be far-reaching.

Homelessness Prevention Efforts in Oklahoma

The state of Oklahoma is exemplary of such progress, shifting from having limited services dedicated to addressing youth homelessness to now working intentionally on implementing youth homelessness prevention models. A Way Home Canada (AWHC) was an important part of this development, providing considerable training and support. AWHC provides training across United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Member States as part of our designation as a Geneva United Nations Charter Centre of Excellence, of which both the U.S. and Canada are Member States. This process has been grounded in the values of HF4Y, an intervention aimed at providing housing stability, holistic support for young people, and facilitating a healthy transition to early adulthood.

To begin, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) created a role in 2019 to coordinate evidence-based programs and bridge the gap between housing, homelessness, and mental health services. Project Directors work directly with service providers. Through their active involvement in communities, Project Directors aim to identify what is and is needed in communities, contributing to the awareness of systems’ inefficiencies and gaps in services.

Providing opportunities to work directly with communities, the ODMHSAS started to reach out and build relationships with the youth service providers in the city. This direct engagement allowed the ODMHSAS to gain an understanding of the unique needs of the community, ensuring that any solutions would ultimately have a positive impact. Youth Serving agencies are often hesitant to engage with funders or government that they have no relationship with because they don’t believe they will follow through, be flexible or act in the best interest of vulnerable youth. ODMHSAS, being quick to respond, began to be viewed as an organization that was willing to support, be on the frontlines, and use its voice to advocate for the city’s youth.

The Relationship between A Way Home Canada and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

April 2021 marked the beginning of the relationship between AWHC and ODMHSAS. A virtual presentation by AWHC at the Housing and Employment Summit with the National Resource Center for Youth Services sparked a dialogue between the two organizations to explore how the HF4Y prevention model could be used to support ODMHSAS’ mission to develop tailored and specialized supports for young people who experience or are at risk for homelessness in Oklahoma.

In October 2021, AWHC’s Training and Technical Assistance team headed to Oklahoma to provide program model training and support for HF4Y. The 15+ service providers who attended the training fell in love with the HF4Y model. As Oklahoma’s interest in HF4Y grew, they sought to make their program more reflective of the training model’s core principles. Thus, entire agencies began seeking out and adapting case management tools while revising policies and procedures.

However, service providers recognized the moral injury of agencies that did not have effective youth support systems in place. This notion was also acknowledged by other parts of Oklahoma; the systems and supports in place for youths were not working. In response, innovative approaches to youth services were developed with the intention of providing more effective and meaningful support to young people. The Youth Homelessness Demonstration (YDHP) launched its programs in summer of 2022. One of  YDHP’s projects focused on Diversion and Family Engagement, which implemented shelter services for youth who do not have the options of emergency shelters, the HF4Y program, transitional housing, or rental vouchers. This was a way to help young people to engage with their families and/or natural supports and seek out “natural” alternatives.

In April 2022, the AWHC Training and Technical Assistance team was invited back to continue the supports and learnings of HF4Y, alongside introducing more upstream youth prevention models, such as Family and Natural Supports (FNS) and Youth Reconnect (YR). More than 30 service providers travelled to Oklahoma to attend the 3-day training. The importance of youth homelessness prevention was emphasized, prompting peoples’ desire to learn more about FNS, YR, and simultaneously increase the reach of HF4Y.

What’s Next?

Oklahoma’s ongoing involvement in youth homelessness prevention has led to its first-ever National Runaway and Homeless Youth Prevention strategy, which will launch in October 2023. This coincides with the USA’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness and Prevention Month.

These individuals and organizations’ considerable insights and expertise has contributed to Oklahoma’s enhancement of youth homelessness prevention programs. The dedication from all parties has enabled Oklahoma to create a comprehensive system of youth homelessness prevention programs and supports that aim to bring families together and provide essential resources to youth in need.

Note: This post was compiled by Aleksija Milovanovic, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, through notes from and discussion with Heidi Walter. Special thanks to Andru Dallaly, Manager of Runaway and Homeless Youth Services at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, for participating in conversations which informed this blog.