New initiative aims to address youth homelessness by emphasizing prevention

A new initiative led by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) at York University in partnership with A Way Home Canada aims to create a change in Canada – and potentially internationally – to how we respond to youth homelessness.

The Making the Shift – Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MtS) will use its $17.9-million commitment from the Government of Canada, granted earlier this year through the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, to combine academic research and community expertise to inform solutions and prevention strategies for youth homelessness.

Pictured, left to right: Celia Haig-Brown, associate vice-president research and innovation, York University; Rui Wang, interim vice-president research and innovation, York University; Rhonda L. Lenton, president and vice-chancellor, York University; Adam Vaughan, parliamentary secretary to the minister of families, children and social development and MP for Spadina-Fort York; Stephen Gaetz, director, Canadian Observatory of Homelessness; Melanie Redman, president and CEO of A Way Home Canada; and Heather Lotherington, associate dean, Faculty of Education, York University

The network partners spoke about MtS at York University on May 23, along with Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina-Fort York and parliamentary secretary to the minister of families, children and social development.

“We have to think differently about housing and how we house people,” said Vaughan. “It starts with understanding how young people are accommodated, how young people are used to create community, and how young people are engaged and turned into the citizens that we need tomorrow.”

MtS is critically important, he said, because it starts to understand current failings in addressing youth homelessness by listening to those who have been failed.

COH conducts and mobilizes homelessness research from across Canada and beyond. A Way Home Canada is a national coalition reimagining solutions to youth homelessness through transformations in policy, planning and practice. Working as a collaborative partnership, the two organizations will research the challenges in addressing youth homelessness, design policy and practice that is driven by evidence, and – within five years – provide communities with the tools they need to prevent youth homelessness.

In Canada, 35,000 to 40,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 experience homelessness over the course of a year; on any given night, there are at least 6,000. The current approach of providing ad hoc emergency services and support for a limited time leaves young people vulnerable to further trauma, criminal exploitation, poor health, and social and economic exclusion, said Stephen Gaetz, CEO and president of COH and scientific director of the new MtS network. It is not only an ineffective approach, he said, but emergency services cost an estimated $7 billion a year annually.

“We know the best way to reduce the number of homeless youths is to provide them with the supports they need to prevent them from falling into homelessness in the first place, and if they do become homeless, to get them into stable housing as quickly as possible,” said Gaetz, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education. “We need to enhance our understanding of what works, why it works, for whom and in what contexts. To do this, we will collaborate with community partners, all levels of government and, most importantly, people who have first-hand experience of youth homelessness.”

Research and knowledge mobilization efforts will focus on youth homelessness and sustainable exits from it, paying particular attention to Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S youth, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

Melanie Redman, CEO and president of A Way Home Canada, and partnership and implementation director for the MtS network, said it will use the knowledge generated through this research to transform the systems that drive young people into homelessness.

“As a national coalition, we can bring organizations, governments and communities together to align their strategies and resources, so we can have a real impact on preventing and ending youth homelessness,” she said.

The MtS network will mobilize community workers, government, charitable funders, young people and researchers from many universities across Canada to work together on a number of research themes and priority projects. These include, for example:

  • strategies to prevent young people who are leaving child protection services or institutional settings from becoming homeless;
  • supports to youths and their families to help them return home or move into new accommodation in a safe way;
  • helping young people to exit homelessness by providing them with supporting needs that go beyond housing;
  • providing access to health, mental health and addictions support; and
  • responding to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action to support Indigenous youth who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.

“Making the Shift is an example of the local and global impact that York is always striving to make through our academic programming, research and related creative activities,” said York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton. “Our community is proud to be part of MtS’s efforts to understand the needs of youth in Canada and to provide them with better, safer and more sustainable housing options, and we appreciate the federal government’s support for innovative initiatives that create transformative solutions.”

For more York University news, photos and videos, visit the YFile homepage