The A Way Home Training and Technical Assistance team has been working and supporting organizations in Durham region for the past six years. During this time, we have had the opportunity to support a variety of incredible individuals and organizations, but the most striking aspect is their dedication to creating systems and partnerships to support youth who are unhoused and experiencing homelessness.  Their coordination and commitment to working better together has certainly served the youth in their community and taught us that systems can come together to end youth homelessness.

Our work in Durham started with a fidelity review of the Refuge, a youth outreach centre that offers Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) programming. We saw the way they transformed their programs and services in response to our recommendations, increasing their fidelity to the HF4Y program model. Six years later, some of the individuals we worked with then are still at the Refuge, now in leadership positions, passing on lessons learnt, the core principles and values to achieve the best outcomes for youths and their families.

I spoke with Taylor Uden, the director of housing services at the Refuge’s Oshawa location, about how the youth homelessness system in Durham has evolved. She pointed to their partnership with the Homelessness Supports Division and their local Ontario Works (OW) branch (OW is the province’s welfare program) under the Social Services Division within the Regional Municipality of Durham. She pointed out that OW workers “are trying to do youth engagement differently. They have designated youth OW workers, so anyone under the age of 18 goes to one of two designated case workers.” This specialization is important to meet the distinct needs of young people, and the OW team has implemented other partnerships towards this goal.

Anyone under the age of 18 has to be in trusteeship to receive OW financial assistance, so OW Durham works closely with the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) of Durham’s Youth Outreach Worker Program, who provides trusteeship to the youth to make sure youths get the supports they need. The OW office had begun providing services at Backdoor Mission Hub to connect with youths who accessed services there and make it easier for them to fill out required paperwork. The Refuge wanted the same services—they now have an OW worker on site once a week. Durham Youth Services also hosts the OW team each week. OW workers are trying to meet youths where they’re at, and Taylor Uden says, “The impact is a huge barrier removal for youth.”

She continued, “It has also given HF4Y workers much more knowledge. They are more knowledgeable of the system, of what services and supports are available for youth.” More integration and coordination of services means youths are more likely to get the referrals and supports they need.

Ontario Works Durham saw that the status quo wasn’t working and took steps to show up in a more powerful way in their community. The OW Workers for trusteed youth have meaningful partnerships with agencies in the community to create a continuum of care for the youths and maintain ongoing relationships with agencies.  Taylor explained that this extends to sharing information rather than hoarding documents: “We don’t all have to be recreating the wheel. Why hold all this information and not share it with the people that engage our population? That makes no sense.” Other organizations have followed suit and developed new collaborations. For instance, Durham Youth Services now hosts the Durham Mental Health Services team every week.

OW workers get to know the youth homelessness system well, and so having them work in partnership with other youth-serving organizations has meant the sector as a whole is better able to help youths navigate the system while providing financial supports. They work with the Region of Durham’s system manager team, which allows them to have streamlined access to funded youth-serving agencies. Their trustee program with BGC Durham has an in house HF4Y program, whose workers participate in weekly community collaboration meetings where youth-serving agencies discuss trends, share resources, and check in on one another. This means that when one agency needs help, they have access to the whole network. Taylor Uden noted, “We learn from each other’s strengths. If you equip the worker, you equip the youth.”

Of the people we have met through our work at A Way Home, these teams in Durham are some of the most dedicated to ending youth homelessness. They saw that individual dedication wasn’t enough—they had to also be willing to change the systems they worked within if they wanted to truly get the best results for youths and their families. These dedicated people include program coordinators, managers and team supervisors as well as front-line workers who engaged in HF4Y training and consulting calls to incorporate principles at a system level across the region, all with the goal of better supporting unsheltered and vulnerable youths.

Heidi Walter and C. L. Michel