This Solutions Lab focused on homeless youth as the National Housing Strategy priority population.
Eva’s Initiatives is a youth organization that led a Solutions Lab to map youths’ journeys in and out of homelessness. Titled, Journeys In and Out, this lab focused on:
- how young people move into and out of homelessness and housing insecurity in large Canadian urban areas
- what might prevent homelessness
3 Key Goals
Prevent homelessness and ease housing pressures on transitional/ emergency shelters by understanding the migration patterns that lead youths to shelters.
Create better programs and policies that support youth and their housing needs.
Understand homelessness and ease housing pressure differences for racialized youth or those moving from rural to urban centers.
Project scope and expected outcomes
Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth has been on Toronto’s front lines since its first shelter opened in 1994. It has since expanded to include harm reduction, employment training, family reconnection, and many other supports for vulnerable young people.
According to Kay Dyson Tam, Impact and Innovation Manager at Eva’s, many well-meaning people and organizations are working to combat youth homelessness, but are often doing so in silos, meaning that a solution that works in one city might not be heard about in another.
Compounding this, the policy discussion as a whole is disconnected from the lived experiences of specific types of vulnerable people. As an example, Kay points to LGBTQ youth in smaller towns, who are often forced to leave their homes, and gravitate to Toronto because programs are available – but end up isolated there because they lack community support. Refugees and students too face their own challenges to getting stable housing.
“I’d been with the organization for a few months before we put in our proposal,” says Kay. “It had become apparent that a number of things on the front lines were disconnected from the policy tables and the technical solutions raised at conferences.”
The proposal Kay refers to was to set up a “solutions lab” that would help break down the silos and test practical solutions to address youth homelessness. “A solutions lab is a good way to bring diverse stakeholders together – clinical teams, direct workers such as counsellors, researchers – to elicit insights”, says Kay. It would also involve young clients, who best know the barriers they face, as well as their own strengths.
Drawing on diverse expertise
To make a solutions lab work, however, Eva’s needed a broader base of expertise. In March 2019, the organization received $249,960 from the Government of Canada’s Solutions Labs program, which is part of the National Housing Strategy. Administered by CMHC, the program helps organizations explore new ways to solve complex housing problems.
The funding allowed Eva’s to bring in Doblin Canada, a consulting firm able to apply a combination of design, social science, and technology expertise to the issue of youth homelessness. “We’re good at providing services,” says Kay, “but there are so many other best practices we wouldn’t have gotten to learn about without Doblin.” The funding also made it possible to hire and pay a team of peer researchers who had lived experience – key to ensuring that prototype solutions would actually work.
The solutions lab, called Journeys In and Out, also brought in the Canadian Observatory of Homelessness, which is part of York University, as a research hub, to provide academic backing. Two other service providers – Montreal’s Dans la rue and Vancouver’s Pacific Community Resources Society – would broaden the perspective of both similarities and differences among major Canadian cities, and determine how scalable the solutions would be.
The approach takes shape
The first stage of the solutions lab was to develop a method for solving the problem using innovative techniques. Simply interviewing people was not enough, as many of the young people whose perspectives would inform the solutions were suffering from trauma, and would be reluctant to share. The team attended training by trauma expert Dr. Vikki Reynolds, developing a “resiliency-based model” that would help bring participants’ strengths to the fore. Too often, says Kay, youth are simply asked repeatedly about all the bad things that have happened to them: “To improve our services, we also need to know what you did well, and what act of resilience allowed you to survive: ‘I found help’ or ‘I helped my younger brother’. It allows youth to see themselves as the hero in the story.”
For this approach, the team developed several tools:
- Resiliency cards – a set of conversational prompts that help young people identify their acts of resilience.
- Housing and descriptor cards – a set a prompts that aim to elicit details of the young person’s background and journey (demographics, relationships, housing situations), but also to guide discussions toward underlying issues and potential solutions.
- Journey maps – visual maps of a young person’s journey through homelessness, which aim to string together the salient points brought up in the cards into a narrative that participants can better understand.
With the approach established, a researcher and peer-researcher interviewed 25 young people (aged 16-24) who had either experienced homelessness or were at risk of homelessness. Three themes began to emerge from the insights they provided:
- The Snowball Effect – For many young people, a seemingly minor incident can precipitate much larger effects. For example, an injury could reduce a person’s ability to work, which could in turn lead to failure to pay bills, and then an eviction. The Snowball Effect could happen to anyone, but it usually reveals that the person was vulnerable to begin with, having few resources or backup plans to deal with adverse incidents.
- The Opportunity Gap – Some groups are more vulnerable than others. Services and resources might be available to the general population, but ethnicity, disabilities, family situations, or language abilities could make accessing them more difficult. Moreover, not every community has the same resources, and some services might require resources or knowledge (such as a car or knowing how to navigate a bureaucracy) not available to everyone.
- The Importance of Interdependence – Many journeys into homelessness stem from breakdowns in relationships with family, community, and peers. It follows that the journeys out of homelessness require either re-establishing those relationships in new, workable terms, or finding new relationships that affirm the individuals for who they are. This is particularly important for LGBTQ youth.
The interviews, along with the maps developed from them, identified gaps in young people’s journeys back from homelessness. The lab participants identified 10 potential approaches to filling these gaps.
One example involves transportation: “There was a huge gap, exacerbating young people’s experience of homelessness,” says Kay. She gives an example of a young person who arrived at a shelter. Lacking beds, the shelter redirected them to elsewhere, providing a bus token and a map. But they got lost in the unfamiliar area. Carrying all their possessions, and without a place to plug in a phone, there would be no way to get new directions, and the young person ended up sleeping rough. The solution, easily scalable from current use in Montreal, is for shelters to have shuttles running between them.
Another example is “host homes”, a diversion program piloted in the United Kingdom, and now being used in Toronto. This takes advantage of the city’s 2 million empty bedrooms by matching vetted residents with youth who need a place to stay. On similar lines, the Toronto HomeShare program successfully pairs up seniors with students who receive reduced rents, in exchange for providing agreed-to support around the house. This powerful model helps seniors age in the community and provides quality affordable housing option for students. “Host homes are a softer landing, especially if you need just a little time before you return to university,” Kay explains. Programs like these will further benefit from Home Match – a digital platform that is being built with an investment from CMHC – that will make it easier to match seniors with empty bedrooms with students, across Canada.
Other interventions are technology-based, such as a mobile intake process for shelters, which not only appeals to young people but also helps service providers meet them where they are, rather than in a neighbourhood they might find unfamiliar.
The initial consultation period of the Journeys in and Out Solutions Lab is over, but much remains to be done. At the service level, this means scaling up some of the prototype solutions, such as temporary modular housing, which has seen great success in Vancouver. 220 Terminal Avenue is Vancouver’s first movable, modular, affordable housing project that received funding under the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. This model is now being replicated in major cities across Canada through the new Rapid Housing Initiative, which supports the rapid construction of affordable housing to meet the needs of vulnerable Canadians, made more acute during the COVID-19 crisis.
Eva’s Initiatives and other participants are not yet announcing their full results, but have been getting the message out by speaking at conferences and connecting to partners. Not every solution will be scalable, especially in smaller communities, cautions Kay, but the research methodology itself should be universal. “We have tips on becoming more client-centred and more focused on resilience. And you don’t need millions of dollars to do it.”
Project Team: Eva's Initiatives for Homeless Youth
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Project Collaborators / Partners:
- Dr. Vikki Reynolds, Consultant
- Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH)
- Pacific Community Resources Society (in Vancouver)
- Dans La Rue (in Montreal)
Get More Information:
Email: Innovation-Research@cmhc.ca or visit the National Housing Strategy’s Innovation page.
Read the related article: Mapping Solutions to Youth Homelessness, Charting a Brighter Future.