With limited resources and increasing demand, we have to think about prevention.
Since September 2011, I have been working at United Way York Region in Markham, Ontario (just north of Toronto) as a result of a unique partnership with York University’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit. With research grants initially from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and more recently from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council we have been building partnerships between researchers and communities to help address some of our most pressing challenges.
Over the past 15 months, our focus has been to Re-Imagine Our Response to Youth Homelessness in York Region – by taking a systems approach. We have been working with Dr. Steve Gaetz from the Faculty of Education at York University, and Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network who provided a framework for our thinking.
York Region is known for its prosperity, an affluent suburb north Toronto which is actually comprised of 9 individual municipalities. With 1 million residents and an expected 500,000 more in the next 20 years, the Region has an increasingly ethnoculturally diverse urban south and rural north. We also have a growing income gap, lack of social infrastructure, transportation challenges, and unaffordable and inaccessible housing for many.
Youth homelessness has been an identified issue in the Region for the past 13 years. Most of our response has been to provide services and supports to youth in crisis in the forms of outreach, youth drop- ins, emergency shelter, and some transitional housing. We have improved the level of services over time, but we are continually challenged to meet the needs of vulnerable youth in our communities.
With limited resources and increasing demand, we have an urgent need to go upstream – to think prevention – to understand the pathways that have brought young people to a place of crisis and where we might have intervened earlier.
After our initial Research Forum, co-hosted by United Way York Region and York University, a seven-part learning series followed, through which leading researchers and practitioners affiliated with the Canadian Homelessness Research Network came to York Region to further inform our response. The presentations, which are available for download through the Homeless Hub, explored upstream partnerships with education, health care, child protection and the youth justice sectors as well as innovative models of housing, training and employment. We were encouraged to reduce the focus on the emergency response and increase emphasis on prevention, appropriate accommodation, and supports to promote transition to adulthood for youth who are unable to return home.
In addition we developed a bold research agenda that would help us to develop base line data in order to contribute to more effective solutions by:
- Capturing the experiences of young people who are homeless in York Region;
- Estimating the scale of the problem;
- Mapping the service infrastructure to address youth homelessness;
- Identifying key points for effective intervention;
- Contributing to the development of a York Region strategic response to end homelessness.
In October 2013, 60 people came together for another research forum. We heard about preliminary findings from student researchers. We listened to the reflections of people who have journeyed with us; a Director of Programs with a youth serving organization, a parent and youth advocate, a front line community worker with the local school board. We had an ideas session – asking where are the synergies/opportunities to move a systems thinking response to youth homelessness forward in our region? What are the challenges/barriers to be overcome? What do we need to keep involved/updated and supported in this collaborative work?
What became very clear through all of this learning is that while there may be individual and family circumstances that contribute to youth homelessness, there are structural and systems failures that must be addressed if we are to end this unacceptable reality. Some of our systems are broken…and young people live in and fall through the cracks of legal, health care, child protection and education systems.
We need funders to be able to join the dots and see where they can be part of the solution as we re-imagine our response. Some funders may think that they don’t “do” homelessness – but there is a powerful opportunity to understand the linkages, join the dots and focus on supporting upstream interventions and the collaborative work that is going to be necessary to implement systems approaches to prevention.
For over 20 years, Jane Wedlock has lived, volunteered and worked in York Region with regional government and extensively within the non-profit sector on issues of poverty, food security, housing and homelessness and youth at risk. From 2005- 2011 she worked with the York Region Alliance to End Homelessness, a collaborative of 22 organizations where she facilitated public education, collaborative research, and advocacy initiatives. Since August 2011 she has been working as a Knowledge Mobilization Officer at United Way York Region in partnership with York University’s KMb Unit. The role fosters linkages and partnerships between community organizations, researchers and students to inform professional practice, and contribute to policy change that will improve quality of life for vulnerable populations.