Abstract: Preventing Youth Homelessness: Horizons for Action in Public Systems (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Preventing Youth Homelessness: Horizons for Action in Public Systems

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kaitlin Schwan, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, York University, Toronto, ON
Stephanie Begun, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose: In recent years there has been a policy and practice shift towards the prevention of youth homelessness in many North American communities, in part due to the identified shortcomings of the emergency response model. While communities are increasingly implementing preventative programs and policies, youth themselves have been decidedly absent from these discussions. As a result, there is a limited scholarly or grey literature on young peoples’ perspectives on youth homelessness prevention, and policy and programming is often developed in the absence of youth’s expertise.

The purpose of this paper is to explore homeless youths’ perspectives on youth homelessness prevention, specifically analyzing youth’s views on effective homelessness prevention policy and practice within public systems. Drawing on a large pan-Canadian qualitative study, the purpose of this paper is to provide insight into the public system failures that contribute to youth homelessness and system-based changes that youth view as necessary to prevent youth homelessness.

Methods: Qualitative data were drawn from 17 focus groups with youth experiencing homelessness, occurring in 12 communities across Canada (n=114). Host communities were selected to ensure regional diversity, the inclusion of Indigenous youth, and representation from rural, urban, and remote communities. Data was collected at agencies serving homeless youth, guided by a grounded theory approach. Following data collection, two research team members coded the data through a cyclical, ongoing process of open, axial, and selective coding. Initial findings were presented to youth representatives from each community who convened in Winnipeg, MB, to participate in data analysis. Final coding and analysis was completed by the research team and reviewed by 8 study participants.

Findings: Analysis indicated that public system failures are a key driver of homelessness for young people, and that often personal or interpersonal factors (e.g., family conflict) only became pathways into homelessness in the context of system failures. Findings reveal the complex ways in which inadequate policy and service delivery within public systems (e.g., education, healthcare, immigration) contribute to homelessness for young people, demonstrating how particular policies (e.g., age cut offs) and practices (e.g., lack of system coordination) directly contribute to homelessness. Further, analysis indicated that many youth had been subject to significant professional misconduct, inequity, and discrimination within public systems prior to becoming homeless, with many youth naming these experiences as a primary cause of their homelessness. Analysis indicated that youth viewed public system reform as the most effective way to prevent youth homelessness.

Conclusions and Implications: While the youth homelessness sector has been held responsible for preventing and ending youth homelessness, these findings indicate that key pathways into homelessness are system failures. As such, youth homelessness prevention efforts must target system reform in all of the public systems that engage youth. This research also demonstrates the particular need for public systems to provide frontline practitioners with the supports, resources, tools, information, and training they need to contribute to youth’s housing stability. These findings highlight why youth must be centered in the design and delivery of youth homelessness prevention policy and practice.