Ending Youth Homelessness

Erin Wixsten is the youth lead with OrgCode and provides this week's blog. You can reach her at ewixsten@OrgCode.com

Can we get a collective ‘Huzzah!’ (sorry, it’s Renaissance Festival season here in Minnesota) for youth homelessness finally getting some attention -- and by attention, I mean new resources -- thirty three million dollars to be exact.  I know I’m not alone in my eagerness to see how the 10 communities who were recipients of the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project (YHDP) funds are going to allocate their awards, and while likely not enough to end homelessness for all young people experiencing it in those communities, it represents a significant gain in what is needed to support systems planning, innovative solutions, and an increase in supportive services and programs that work to end youth homelessness.

What it takes to end homelessness for youth who are experiencing it isn’t radically different than what works for singles and families, however I’ve seen ‘adult’ service providers tremble when talking about serving youth.  They aren’t aliens, they are just young.  Services need to be developmentally appropriate, and in addition to being Housing First and Trauma-Informed, programming needs to be grounded in Positive Youth Development.  They need to be collaborative rather than punitive.  Overall, they need to be a safe space from which youth can begin their journey out of homelessness.

Before I came to be part of the OrgCode team, I was the Director of Housing and Homeless Services at an incredible Minneapolis non-profit called The Link.  In nearly 12 years in that role, I helped to develop, open, and supervise a variety of supportive housing programs for young people who were exiting homelessness -- key word is exiting, and my team used that language intentionally to reiterate that the crisis of homelessness was over and our role was to support them in such a place.  This did not mean that there weren’t many other challenges and opportunities to come, but we wanted to ground our work in being housing and stability focused.  When I started in that role at The Link over 12 years ago now, my first task was to create a program model for their first ever housing program: hire and train staff, develop programming, oversee case management, etc.  For years I had worked with youth at risk of, or experiencing homelessness through programs such as drop-in centers, outreach, emergency shelter, and transitional living programs.  However there were almost no supportive housing programs for young people in my community at that time.  As a housing provider, I would attend funder and community meetings and trainings, policy sessions, etc. and while technically the youth in our programs were adults (18-24 years old) I immediately realized I needed to look at the information, funding, program development, staffing structure, etc. through a youth-friendly lens and translate it into a developmentally appropriate model for youth.  I was in a unique position to be straddling both the adult and youth sectors, and while challenging, at first feeling like I was at the wrong table on both sides, empowering youth voice in decision making made it much easier.  Young people helped to develop programs that they themselves either would, or had been served by.  Essentially, applying what is working for singles and families in a way that works for young people.

The most significant observation that I had from my perspective as a youth housing provider at the time was how differently youth services and interventions were applied than with singles and families.  In most ways, youth were given incredible support for extended periods of time to stabilize and were connected with intensive supportive services, programming, advocacy and case management.  Young people were nurtured within those programs and were supported in setting and achieving incredible goals around education, employment, and other personal objectives.  They had passionate advocates to help them succeed.  Unfortunately, this was most often happening in a shelter or drop-in setting.  This was over a decade ago but I recognized our role at the time was to create and implement programs that would provide that same intensity of services within a housing context with the one goal in mind:  end youth homelessness.

  • Youth in a youth shelter are still homeless and while the shelter setting and services may be incredibly high quality, youth-centered, and full of highly trained and professional staff, we want young people out of the crisis of homelessness, and stably housed, as soon as possible.  Housing is the solution to homelessness.
  • For every bed occupied tonight by a youth in a youth shelter, there are three, six, ten sleeping outside or in a place that is unsafe for them.  By quickly moving young into housing -- with the necessary supports -- more youth could be sheltered who otherwise would not be.
  • Evaluating data over time, it became clear that if we were operating from a Housing First framework -- supporting youth to transition out of homelessness, and applying protective factors around areas that put them most at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless again -- we saw that young people stabilized much quicker -- and transitioned in place, or into another housing option, much more quickly -- which allowed us to serve more youth.
  • Housing First for youth is trauma informed and asset based.  It directly applies the belief that young people can, and should, be housed.  That they are ‘ready’ and while they may need a different length or intensity of services once housed, it’s absolutely something they can do and deserve.  Housing is not a reward for good behavior or program participation.  While we want to employ the principles of Youth Engagement in our programs, housing and/or services are not a result of how engaging or engaged a young person is.
  • As a community or even at an agency level, we need to be creative in how we solve the challenge of the lack of affordable housing.  This pairs nicely however, with what we know about young people needing a variety of options from which to choose and potentially move around in as they seek to find what works best for them.  We must be solution-focused when faced with this challenge and move away from talking about what we don’t have in our community to creating what we need.

Housing First is not housing only but rather a service orientation from which all services and supports for young people experiencing homelessness should center.  Housing stability supports and housing focused, client-centered service planning are critical for housing success.  It’s invigorating and encouraging to see communities embrace this orientation for how we support young people who are experiencing homelessness, and see systems reorganize and collaborate on effective interventions that end homelessness for youth and young adults.

Stay tuned for a brief webinar coming out in the next couple of weeks that can give you some ideas (and lessons learned) on what Housing Stabilization looks like for young people.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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