January 29, 2018

Midyear 2018: Cross-border activity and shared learning help U.S., Canada counter youth homelessness

The ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver presents an opportunity to bring together lawyers, local advocates and providers to discuss Canadian and American strategies for serving the unmet legal needs of homeless youth. 

The issue is one of ABA President Hilarie Bass’ signature initiatives.

“ABA and Canadian Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Learning Exchange: Improving Outcomes by Removing Legal Barriers” is hosted by the ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty and the ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network in partnership with A Way Home Canada. The event will be held on Friday, Feb. 2, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in the Star Sapphire Ballroom C.

During the program, Melanie Redman, co-founder and president of A Way Home Canada, will host a panel on how Canada is responding to the legal and justice needs of young people experiencing homelessness.

Redman acknowledges that the Canadian bar is “not as engaged on the issue” of homeless youth as the ABA is, but because the legal needs of homeless youth are the same in both countries, Redman hopes to “use the event as an opportunity to kickstart that dialog and some of the efforts to build the capacity of the legal and justice community here.”

The causes of youth homelessness, regardless of country, often stem from conflict and/or abuse at home, aging out of foster care and/or family rejection as a result of being LGBTQ. The legal issues are also the same: needing personal identification to obtain work, go to school, get medical help; needing help clearing credit issues or run-ins with the law; among others.

There are an estimated 6,000 Canadian homeless youth, which is a similar number proportionally as in the United States.

A Way Home Canada was formed as an effort “to get all the stakeholders on the same page, pointed in the same direction” to end youth homelessness, Redman says. Six months later, in 2016, A Way Home America launched with the same goal.

The United States is “doing all this interesting mapping work,” including showing that there are 30 programs serving homeless youth in 20 states, and that’s something Canada needs to do province by province, Redman says. Canadians can learn from the 12 model programs in the United States identified by the ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network, she says.

At the same time, she says, the United States can learn from Canada, too.

“One area where [Canada is] starting to see movement is on prevention,” Redman says. A federal policy, called the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, is a community-based effort aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness by providing direct support and funding to 61 designated communities and to organizations that address native Canadian homelessness across the country. That was used as a “stick and carrot” to roll out Housing First for Youth across the country, Redman says.

Housing First for Youth emphasizes “not simply [that youth] be independently housed, but to be supported through a successful transition to independence and well-being,” according to its website. Its principles include:

  • A right to housing with no preconditions
  • Youth choice, youth voice and self-determination
  • Positive youth development and wellness orientation
  • Individualized, client-driven supports with no time limits
  • Social inclusion and community integration.

Canada is also implementing pilot programs adapting Australia’s Geelong Project, a school-based early intervention program that works to identify youth at risk of homelessness and dropping out of school.

During the pilot phase of The Geelong Project (TGP) in Australia, 95 young people and 43 family members were proactively identified as being at high risk for homelessness and “school disengagement.” Following TGP’s intervention:

  • 86 percent remained in or returned home (after leaving or regularly couch-surfing)
  • 14 percent were supported into alternative accommodations when home was not appropriate.

A Way Home Canada is working with Washington State to adapt TGP there, and is just one example of the “cross-border activity” the two countries are engaged in, Redman says.

On the panel will be Stephen Gaetz, head of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub and the author of Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, the largest national study of youth homelessness in Canada, which was released last year. He will be joined by Julia Huys, a lawyer for Justice for Children and Youth in Toronto, who will discuss a “unique model in Ontario of providing legal supports for young people who are homeless,” says Redman.

Redman hopes attendees will come away from the program with an understanding that even though the legal systems are different, the issues underlying youth homelessness are the same in Canada and the United States, and that shared learning is key.