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Making youth homelessness everybody’s business

Tamsin Stirling visited the United States and Canada on a travel fellowship to find out more about their approach to youth homelessness. She reflects on some of what she found out.

Homelessness – particularly the very visible homelessness on our streets – is on the rise. This is despite our legislation which has had a positive impact in preventing homelessness for many people. Very often, when it comes to tackling homelessness, it can feel like two steps forward and at least one step backward.

Last October and November, I was able to travel to California and Canada to look at youth homelessness, particularly community and business engagement in preventing, tackling and ending youth homelessness. This was made possible thanks to a travel fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

I wanted to look at how communities and businesses had been engaged in contexts where the legislative safety net we have in Wales is not present and I wanted to learn more about the work of the A Way Home America and A Way Home Canada coalitions. I spent time in seven cities hearing from a range of organisations and attended the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Winnipeg.

I had a fantastic few weeks and was blown away by people’s generosity with their time and sharing of their experience and expertise and came away with a lot of unexpected learning, particularly around the experience of indigenous people in Canada and the way this impacts on homelessness in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

Why focus on youth homelessness?

The main reason I decided to focus on youth homelessness, rather than homelessness overall, was well expressed by a speaker at an informational hearing that I was invited to attend in Los Angeles, who said: ‘You can’t end homelessness without ending youth homelessness’.

Added to this is the devastating impact that experiencing homelessness at an early age can have on people. I was shocked to be told in Sacramento that the young persons’ shelter I visited catered for youngsters from the age of 12 upwards.

The Homeless Hub – my go to resource for information and research on homelessness in Canada and beyond – notes that youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness.  For young people:

Becoming homeless does not just mean a loss of stable housing, but rather leaving a homein which they are embedded in relations of dependence, thus experiencing an interruption and potential rupture in social relations with parents and caregivers, family members, friends, neighbours and community.’

These differences speak for a separate youth-focused strategy and services that support the strategy that are distinct from the adult sector.

A further reason for focusing on youth homelessness is that there’s a great opportunity in Wales to feed into the work of End Youth Homelessness Cymru in the context of an increased focus on youth homelessness at a national level.

 Ending, not managing  

The coalitions in place in America (A Way Home America) and Canada (A Way Home Canada) both focus on preventing and ending youth homelessness. Despite the scale of the issue in both countries and how far there is to go to end youth homelessness, they are unashamedly ambitious in their goal. They don’t talk about reducing or tackling youth homelessness, but ending it. The stance taken by A Way Home Canada is that it is not only possible to end youth homelessness, but that it is imperative to do so.

Looking at things through an ending youth homelessness lens means changing the way we do things. An example in Calgary is that a number of youth-serving organisations have agreed a zero discharge into homelessness policy. A case conference approach is now used to ensure that if a young person has to leave a particular project, an alternative place for them to live and be supported is found. As well as meaning the young people concerned are not homeless, this has played a role in building mutual accountability across the organisations.

It can also mean challenging actions which may seem logical in the here and now, but which can work against the overall goal. An example would be putting lots of resources into increasing shelter/hostel provision to get young people off the streets at the expense of investing in prevention measures and long(er)-term housing and support.

Coalition members, and the work of the coalition itself, are rooted in the rights of young people, the foundation being:

‘All young people have the right, both fundamental and legal, to live free from homelessness and with access to safe, affordable, adequate housing.’

As well as clarity of purpose, persistence was also very evident in the work of the coalition. The leader of the Canadian Alliance for Ending Homelessness, Tim Richter, uses the phrase ‘relentless incrementalism’ to describe what is needed to end homelessness; keeping on making changes and improvements that move us closer to the goal.

 Working to strengths

One thing that particularly impressed me in Canada was that members of the coalition really played to their strengths. For example, at a national level, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness plays a lead role in research and the Push for Change and Raising the Roof have been leading on raising public awareness and education.

Raising the Roof also specialises in identifying innovative solutions to prevent homelessness and replicating them in local communities. It has incorporated learning from the Geelong project in Australia into its Upstream project in schools and has recently visited Canopy Housing in England to learn about its work bringing empty properties back into use. As a result, they have started a new initiative called Reside.

The work of A Way Home Canada started out embedded in a Toronto-based service delivery organisation called Eva’s Initiatives. However, since October 2015, the core team of A Way Home (now eight people) has operated independently of any service delivery organisation and has its own board. This independence avoids many potential, perceived and actual conflicts of interest.

A small number of funders are also partners in the coalition, all with a long-term commitment to investing in action to end youth homelessness and a desire to see systemic change.

And at a local level, coalition members across Canada test out and evaluate different ways of working which can then be scaled, supported by advocacy, guidance, training etc, provided by the national partners. An example is the development of Housing First for Youth; work at a local level has informed the development of guidance.

Coalition members also work together on research, for example, the first National Youth Homelessness Survey undertaken in 2015. It was funded by Home Depot Canada Foundation, lead researchers were drawn from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and coalition members at local level and the young people who use their services contributed to the research. The results of the survey have informed both policy development and action. A second national survey is planned for this year.

In America, I was impressed by the establishment of a National Youth Forum onHomelessness.TheForum aims to ‘create youth-led change in the national response to end youth homelessness’. An example is its influence on the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Programme run by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The programme was developed with the help of the forum and the group also played a key role in assessing applications and will help guide the technical assistance that will be provided to the 10 communities. HUD states that the involvement of young people ‘profoundly shaped the demonstration programme’.

A national forum of young people with experience of homelessness is not part of the work of A Way Home Canada. However, the coalition recognises that young people are the experts in their own lives and works alongside the online Learning Community on youth homelessness to identify and disseminate positive practice in youth engagement.

At a national level, it works with other organisations that work directly with young people who have faced homelessness.

Beyond the usual suspects

During my travels, I came across fewer examples of community engagement in youth homelessness than I had anticipated, but far more example of business engagement. Here are just a small number of all those I heard about.

In Minneapolis, Avenues for Youth has developed voluntary host home schemes for LGBTQ youth. The programme recruits and trains adult volunteers to be host homes, then the young people choose a volunteer host home, so that they can continue to live, attend school, and work within their home communities.

Voices for Youth describes the Host Home programme as ‘an “outside the system” community and volunteer-based response to youth homelessness’. The adult hosts receive no payment. The hosts are LGBTQ identified themselves or are allies.

In Los Angeles, a community campaign called Everyone In has recently started. This follows successful referenda to increase sales and property taxes by a small amount specifically for schemes and services to tackle homelessness. A coalition led by United Way Greater Los Angeles will ‘train and organise people to advocate for new housing and services for homeless people in their neighbourhoods, track progress toward countywide goals, educate the public and give them other opportunities to get involved’.

On business engagement, in Edmonton, Homeless Connect and Youth Connect events provide an opportunity for businesses to contribute in various ways. They can sponsor or donate items such as clothing or toiletries. More importantly, they can provide services pro bono such as dental care, haircuts and employment and training services. The events bring people experiencing homelessness into direct contact with services and information they need.

The most strategic example of business engagement I came across was the Home Depot Canada Foundation. In 2013, after some work to identify possible priority areas, the foundation decided that youth homelessness would be its long-term priority for investment and engagement.

Since then, it has committed $20 million to the sector, funding infrastructure and research at national level, as well as contributing to local services in various ways including through its Orange Door Project, an in-store fundraising and awareness raising campaign. Along with three other foundations, they are formal partners in the A Way Home Canada coalition.

Their current funding priorities are increasing housing options for young people, supporting life skills development, research and community dialogue and prevention. They also provide employment for young people experiencing homelessness in Home Depot stores, provided financial support to start the national Youth Job portal Hire Up and encourage Home Depot employees to volunteer in their local communities. A real whole business approach to supporting the goal of ending youth homelessness that goes far beyond a ‘charity of the year’ approach.

From what I heard and saw during my travels, I think that there is significant scope to increase positive community and business engagement in ending youth homelessness in Wales and indeed across the UK. In my report to WCMT as the funder of my travels, I will include typologies for community and business engagement in ending youth homelessness which will link to practical examples. I hope that these will provide a useful framework for discussion.

Yes we can!

Like the members and partners in A Way Home Canada, I believe that it is imperative that we end youth homelessness and also believe that it is something we can do. Drawing on what I learned in California and Canada, I think that, in order to achieve this goal, we’ll need to:

  • be relentless, with absolute focus and clarity of purpose
  • put the rights of young people at the centre of our work
  • develop a national coalition within which organisations play to their strengths, there is clarity of roles and conflicts of interest are avoided as far as possible
  • enable young people with lived experience of homelessness to make their voices heard and influence decision-making at all levels
  • keep learning from each other and from other places
  • broaden our thinking about the ways in which members of the public and businesses can contribute and communicate clearly about these opportunities

This is far from being a definitive list, but the above could certainly help to make youth homelessness (and ending it) everybody’s business.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] or on twitter at @TamsinStirling1. She will be speaking about her trip on Day 2 of TAI 2018


• In Los Angeles (population of around 10 million), the 2017 homelessness count found around 6,000 young

people homeless on any given night, around 75 per cent of these being ‘unsheltered’ (on the streets).

• In Canada (population just over 36 million), the 2016 national youth homelessness survey 2016 found ‘over the course of the year there are between 35,000–40,000 young people who experience homelessness, and on any given night between 6,000–7,000’.

• The definition of youth homelessness used by the A Way Home Canada coalition: ‘refers to the situation and experience of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers, but do not have the means or ability to acquire a stable, safe or consistent residence’.

• In neither Canada nor America is there a legislative safety net in place like our homelessness legislation.However, there are specific national programmes/funding streams such as the Youth Homelessness  Demonstration Programme (America) and Homelessness Partnering Strategy (Canada), as well as programmes at state/province and city/county levels that aim to prevent or tackle youth homelessness.

• Young people from indigenous communities are vastly over-represented when it comes to homelessness. For example, in Manitoba (one of Canada’s provinces), nearly 58 per cent of homeless youth identify as indigenous compared to 17 per cent of the total population of the province who are indigenous.

• While California and Canada are some way from ending youth homelessness, academic Stephen Gaetz makes a strong case for focusing on ending rather than managing youth homelessness: ‘Instead of becoming complacent with the reality of youth homelessness…we should be focusing on developing integrated homelessness strategies with the goal of ensuring that no young person becomes homeless as a result of the transition to independent living.’

• Home Depot is the North American equivalent of B&Q.

Further information

Ten people have received travel fellowships from WCMT to look at various housing issues in 2018 https://www.wcmt.org.uk/fellows/news/fulllist-2018-churchill-fellows#Housing

A report from my fellowship will be published on the WCMT website in the coming months. In the meantime, you can find my blog at tamsinstirlingblog.wordpress.com/blog/

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