Youth services partner up to eliminate youth homelessness

Fraser Scantlebury, regional director of United Way Lanark County, is excited about a new collaborative project that seeks to put an end to youth homelessness. Photo credit: Matthew Behrens.
Posted on: June 18, 2017

Matthew Behrens

A new partnership seeks to end the vexing problem of Lanark County youth homelessness which, while not as visible as its urban counterpart, nonetheless affects a growing number of young people.

Under a new initiative known as Collective Impact (CI) — inspired by U.S. research that identified too many social issues being treated with isolated interventions instead of cross-sectoral approaches — United Way Lanark County has partnered with Perth’s YAK Youth Services, the Lanark Highlands Youth Centre, and Cornerstone Landing with a singular purpose:  to provide every young person in need in Lanark County and Smiths Falls with safe and affordable housing and supportive services within 10 days of being identified as homeless.

While new youth homelessness figures based on an extensive spring survey of area high schools were still being crunched as Hometown News went to press, a 2013 Cornerstone Landing survey of 400 Perth high school students revealed that 25 per cent of respondents had experienced at least one episode of homelessness between the ages of 12 and 17, with 11 per cent experiencing three or four episodes of homelessness.

“Sometimes people see tents in [Almonte’s] Gemmill Park or [Perth’s] Last Duel Park in November and say how nice that is,” says Fraser Scantlebury, regional director of United Way Lanark County. “I respond by saying, ‘It’s not nice, because those are homeless kids. They’re not out there doing Arctic training to camp in the winter. They’re out there because they have nowhere else to go.’”

For too many years, Scantlebury says, area municipalities were in denial about the extent of the problem, and rural homelessness was often treated with a one-way bus ticket to Ottawa. But that only pushed the problem into someone else’s community, and isolated young people from the very family and friends support networks they needed to get back on their feet.

The four CI groups plan to employ the much-vaunted “housing first” model, which maintains that once shelter is provided as a foundation, other issues that may have contributed to or been exacerbated by homelessness can be addressed. Case workers are then able to develop resource plans to help individuals deal with everything from mental health challenges to surviving abuse or handling addictions.

“We’re not trying to get a bunch of other people to become us,” Scantlebury says.  “We just want them to continue the excellent work they’re doing in a unified process that avoids duplication. Let’s have a standardized intake process so we understand what everyone is doing.”

Lanark County will also become a pilot project for the “by name list,” which, while providing client confidentiality will assist social service workers to track an individual’s history with precarious housing. That project will help the county respond to a provincial requirement to track homelessness beginning in 2018.

“If we see someone going back and forth to homelessness, it will help us to see that there may be other issues besides housing that need to be addressed,” Scantlebury says. “Maybe it means looking at the possibility of family reunification, where a case manager will work with a young person and a family to see if they can overcome issues, while finding a safe place to house the young person for a short time.”

While improving response time and follow-up for young people in crisis and focusing on prevention, the CI groups also hope to be ready to receive federal funds to build affordable housing units, expected as part of a 2018 national housing strategy.

“If we can get youth housed and off the streets, they’re better situated to finish their education, and they don’t become homeless adults,” Scantlebury says, concluding the program is ultimately a preventive  opportunity to break a toxic cycle of poverty, addictions, abuse, and gender identity discrimination, among other issues that often leave young people with no place to call home.

This article first appeared in the June issue of Hometown News. Get your digital version here.