In the last 20 years, the community response to youth homelessness has largely been to adapt the service models of the adult system and apply them to young people. The general practise that has developed is to try meet young people where they are – accepting their homelessness as a given – and provide services that attend to their safety, first and foremost.
The virtue of this practise is that it does not diminish young people because they are homeless, a situation which is usually beyond their control. Rather, it offers opportunities for those who are able to make their way out of homelessness once the appropriate supports have been accessed. However, this often happens with little consideration for the developmental needs of adolescence.
According to this model, the trajectory would see young people move from shelter services to finding work, and eventually to finding an apartment so they could live independently. Also integral to the work of the youth serving sector is referrals and support in addressing substance use and mental health issues, or completing school programs.
In recent years the sector has seen some growth in the range of comprehensive services provided, often delivered through community based partnerships. These have included innovative employment training programs that integrate sustainable/green components; harm reduction and substance use programs; “housing first” models; social enterprises; and dynamic peer support programs.
These programs have and continue to support thousands of young people in Canada. However, they do so with little acknowledgement of the critical distinction between homeless adults and homeless youth.
Were there to be a more formal acceptance of this distinction, it would mean:
- Acknowledgement that young people need a range of supports to make their transition into the workplace and into independent housing healthy and sustainable.
- Understanding that the sooner we intervene when young people enter the homeless cycle, the better chance we have at helping them return home or transition to supportive or independent housing.
- The belief that family, in the many forms it takes, plays a significant role in young people’s lives.
An acknowledgement of these distinctions would result in an acceptance of family as a resource in addressing youth homelessness and a national investment in prevention programs.