York lab explores solutions for youth homelessness

youth homelessness

What would you do if you discovered that 50 per cent of Canada’s current homeless population had their first episode of homelessness before the age of 24?

Stephen Gaetz
Stephen Gaetz

If you were Stephen Gaetz, the York University Research Chair in Homelessness and Research Impact and a professor in the Faculty of Education, you’d use your excellent research and communications skills and grant-writing ability to attack the problem.

Gaetz is the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the Homeless Hub, and Making the Shift – Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MtS), all based at York. As a young man, Gaetz worked in a community health centre for homeless youth, an experience that opened his eyes to homelessness and influenced the course of his career.

MtS, the newest member of his “family” of endeavours focused on homelessness, was created in 2018 and is led in equal partnership with A Way Home Canada, a national coalition working to contribute to the transformation of our response to youth homelessness. MtS seeks to provide leadership in helping communities and governments to move away from crisis response solutions for youth homelessness to finding solutions that help them exit homelessness or prevent it from happening. As with Gaetz’s other projects, MtS’s work is focused on research and knowledge mobilization, although the lab also has a service component, assisting youth and their families.

“The hospital emergency room is often used as a metaphor for how we should address homelessness, which in practical terms means we put most of our energies into helping those individuals who are sickest or who have been homeless the longest,” Gaetz said.

“While well-meaning, this system actually puts people in harm’s way by expecting people to wait until things get really bad before we really help them. For young people this means exposing them to potential harms associated with life on the streets, where their physical and mental health declines, they experience trauma, self-medicate and face a much more difficult road in moving forward with their lives. Basically, this indicates that the problem of youth homelessness in North America isn’t taken seriously enough – it’s often seen as a distraction.

“What if we treated the pandemic as we do homelessness? We’d forget about masks, a vaccine, social distancing and containment. We’d just make big waiting rooms and help people when they are really sick.”

One lesson Canadians have learned from the pandemic is that prevention is essential. Gaetz would like to see that lesson applied to youth homelessness, too.

“It’s a radical concept, when it shouldn’t be,” he said. “MtS’s hope is to contribute to that transformation and make a difference in creating change.”

MtS’s research focuses on developing and testing effective strategies to prevent youth homelessness and help those who are homeless to move out of it quickly and achieve housing stability. This focus intersects with three major goals:

  • enabling health, well-being and inclusion;
  • enhancing outcomes for Indigenous youth; and
  • leveraging data and technology to drive policy and practices.

MtS is currently funding 14 innovative research projects to help achieve this agenda. A few of these projects include conducting longitudinal research on better outcomes for youth transitioning from care, innovative strategies to prevent Indigenous youth homelessness in Saskatchewan and analyzing school-based early intervention.

The lab’s work also centres around creating change through knowledge mobilization – processes of engaged scholarship designed to move research into active use so as to enhance its impact on policy, programs and practice.

As Gaetz noted, “You can do the best research on prevention in the world, but if you don’t get it into the right hands with the right supports, it means nothing.”

One way MtS is spreading the word is through the LivEX network and it’s In Conversation series of virtual conversations with young scholars who have lived experiences of homelessness. Gaetz also involves young researchers in these public events to give them experience and exposure to more established colleagues. The first conversation of this series called on York alumnus and assistant professor, and renowned author, Jesse Thistle, a Métis scholar with lived experience of homelessness, to share his insights.

In addition, MtS is engaged in demonstration projects targeted in 12 locations nationwide targeting youth homelessness. Housing First for Youth is a rights-based intervention taking place in Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton. It is an adaptation of the successful Housing First model used for adult homeless persons, modified to meet the needs of adolescents and young adults.

The Youth Reconnect program in Hamilton is a preventive intervention designed to provide support to vulnerable young people in the communities where they have developed social connections and supports, while encouraging youth to engage or re-engage with education.

Eight cities – CalgaryEdmontonFort McMurrayGrande PrairieLethbridgeMedicine HatRed Deer and Toronto – are home to Enhancing Family and Natural Supports, an effort focused on preventing and ending youth homelessness through strengthening relationships between vulnerable young people and their support networks, including family.

“The most common reason that youth become homeless is family conflict and childhood trauma,” Gaetz said, “but bad experiences with the family doesn’t mean that there aren’t positive relationships possible within the family. We want to keep youth connected to their families.”

His research shows that 40 per cent of all young people who are homeless had their first experience of homelessness before they were 16, whether due to childhood trauma or bullying or other reasons.

“We don’t do anything for them when they’re younger than 16, but if they’ve been couch surfing for a couple of years by the time they’re 15, there’s a lot of damage to undo,” Gaetz said. “We need to start supporting them as early as we can.”

Of course, it takes a village – or a team, in this case – to make an impact, and Gaetz is committed to involving undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows in research and knowledge mobilization. At MtS, there is a group of students who has lived experience of homelessness to serve as mentors to youth.

“York University has been very good at supporting my interdisciplinary approach to research and the Faculty of Education has been an ideal place to do my work, given its strong focus on equity and its multi-disciplinary nature,” he said. “I can find common ground with many others and there’s a willingness not to get stuck in silos.”

Perfect, indeed, because challenges within youth homelessness need broad solutions and a meeting of many perspectives, and the engine Gaetz has created will continue rolling toward practical remedies.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer