Moving in and growing up: a Housing First framework for youth
Adults might become homeless because of a job loss, an eviction, a complex addiction, or a divorce. For youth, the causes are different. A young person on the streets is more likely to be there because of family conflict, abuse, or a relationship breakdown.
Homeless youth are also in a very different life stage than their adult neighbours. Few homeless youth have experience signing leases or living independently; many don’t have bank accounts.
“Our solutions have to be different. There’s no Housing First Junior.”
Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, has been studying youth homelessness for decades. He notes that “conditions are profoundly different for youth [than for adults].”
“They’re more likely to couch-surf for longer,” he says. “They’re in the middle of adolescent development and they’re leaving home from the care of others. Their needs are different than those of an adult who is homeless.”
“Young people who become homeless have to move to big cities to access the supports they need,” Gaetz says. “They lose family, friends, teachers, and their community. Their natural supports are gone and replaced with professional supports.”
In partnership with other researchers from the Canadian Homeless Research Network, Gaetz has published a report on adapting the Housing First model for youth: ‘A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First framework for youth.’ In the traditional Housing First model, people who are homeless are moved into independent, permanent housing, with no preconditions, and are provided with services and supports as needed.
Gaetz’s framework follows the same principle – move homeless youth into housing, with no strings attached, and provide supports – and identifies specific supports to meet the developmental, legal, and social needs of young people.
“Our solutions have to be different. We need to tailor the model to meet the needs of younger people. There’s no Housing First Junior.”
The core principles of Housing First for youth are:
- Immediate access to housing with no preconditions. Individuals and families are not required to demonstrate “readiness” for housing and housing is not conditional on sobriety, abstinence, or other behaviours.
- Youth choice and self-determination. Young people are able to make choices about the type of housing and supports they receive. They are also supported in accessing education and training.
- Positive youth development orientation. Housing First for youth must recognize that young people are transitioning to adulthood. Supports and accommodation must meet their needs and support this transition.
- Individualized and client-driven supports. All people are unique and every youth will have different needs. Supports should be driven by the client’s immediate and future needs.
- Social and community integration. Once housed, every effort should be made to help young people engage and participate in their community. This can include opportunities for social, cultural, and spiritual engagement; support for family reconnection; and opportunities for employment, volunteering, and recreation.
“Twenty-five years ago, young people could leave home at 16 and get a job in a factory, which provides a decent living,” Gaetz says. “That’s not possible anymore. The jobs available to young people are more often minimum wage and you can’t live well on that…At the same time, a lot of our [housing] infrastructure and supports are built for the circumstances of 25 to 30 years ago.”
“Leaving home or leaving care at 18 in Ontario made sense in 1960. It doesn’t anymore and our systems are inadequate.”
There are three key approaches to ending homelessness, Gaetz says: prevention, emergency services, and housing. “In Canada, we’ve invested heavily in the middle part.”
By concentrating investments into emergency services and prioritizing chronically homeless people for Housing First services, Gaetz says that young people are being left behind.
“The chronically homeless population is typically older and male, yet many who are chronically homeless had their first experience of homelessness when they were much younger. We need to work upstream to stop homelessness from happening.”
Research shows that the longer a young person is homeless or relying on emergency services, the more likely they are to drop out of school, to become entrenched in the street youth lifestyle, and to experience declining physical and mental health. A young person who is homeless for a prolonged period is also more likely to experience crime, violence, and sexual exploitation.
To help a young person transition into permanent housing and into adulthood, a Housing First Model for youth needs to recognize that youth are different from adults and that their needs are different.
The needs of a homeless youth aren’t that different from a young person who’s housed. Gaetz says. “All young people need time to grow, help from adults, income, school, the opportunity to work, and the chance to make mistakes.”