'Housing first' program making significant impact on homeless youth
Often, people who are homeless are not given voices. Their stories are not heard. Research gives them a place to get their stories heard.
Human ecology professor is working with the Edmonton John Howard Society and Homeward Trust to understand how a transitional housing-first model helps young people change their lives.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
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When Pushpanjali Dashora got involved in some clinical research trials focused on ending homelessness and its associated problems among youth, she discovered something unexpected about the young people she was learning about: their strength.
“I had read the literature and had learned about all the problem issues that youth have but until that time, I never knew how resilient they could be. That was a turning point in my academic life because I thought this is where I can make a difference—a little bit,” said Dashora, who studies human development in the context of poverty and homelessness.
Now, working with United Way funded partner Edmonton John Howard Society and Homeward Trust, she’s finding out how meeting the most basic of needs—housing—can give homeless youth the solid footing they need to take that next step into their future.
Housing first means, as the name implies, you house first, and then you deal with the other issues,” Dashora explained.
The program she is studying, NOVA, is a housing-first program specifically developed for homeless youth. The model operates from the premise that housing is a basic human right.
“The basic principle is to be non-judgmental towards people who need housing, recognizing that housing is the basic right, and not requiring people to work first on their addiction or other issues. Just providing them with safe, supportive housing first,” she said.
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Though young people are expected to work toward goals such as employment and permanent housing, there’s not a strict time limit imposed on youth in the program.
“There is a lot of room for them to feel comfortable, to work at their own pace,” Dashora noted. “As they are ready, they work on the things they need in their life, such as jobs, housing, education, getting treatment for addiction or mental health treatment.”
This model offers some solutions to two key challenges that homeless youth face in accessing services.
“There are many different kinds of services available to youth, but if they aren’t even aware of them, they aren’t going to access them.”
Once young people are aware of programs, they may still view them with distrust because of past experiences.
Because the program is tailored to young adults—Dashora’s participants are aged 18-24—it can also better address some of the specific needs of homeless youth. One of the biggest challenges for youth is meeting societal expectations for adulthood without having been taught the skills to navigate that world. For many of the young people in the program, most of the supports in their life vanished overnight once they turned 18.
“These youth have gone through multiple systems, such as foster care, group homes, kinship care, all different kinds of systems they move through, and they suddenly find themselves being an adult. They are expected to take responsibility for so many things and their life experiences have not adequately prepared them for taking on adult roles and responsibilities,” she said.
By intervening early to help youth get the tools for a stable future, Dashora hopes to prevent the problems of chronic homelessness she’s seen in the lives of adults she’s worked with in other projects.
“For chronically homeless adults, it’s more often different kinds of health issues with regard to their mobility, their addictions; it all gets entrenched in their lives, and it’s harder to get out of that situation because it’s been there for so long,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s hard for outsiders to understand why funding research like Dashora’s is so critically important to solving the problems of homelessness and poverty but she explains that applied, participatory work like hers is essential to policy-making and program development. At the heart of her work are the voices of the people involved, which she describes as research for them, with them, and not on them.
“Often, people who are homeless are not given voices. Their stories are not heard. Research gives them a place to get their stories heard and to see things from their perspectives. It provides evidence that can inform policy and programs. Often, policies and programs are developed by those who may not have lived the life of a person who has experienced something like this. So research, I think, can bring us closer to the reality of people’s lives.”
While her data collection is still underway, Dashora is already seeing the impact of the NOVA project in the lives of youth.
“It’s about housing, it’s about having access to basic necessities such as food and clothing and all that, but equally important is the people. The people who are there serving at this facility, they are amazing and that’s what I’ve been hearing from youth again and again. The staff is fulfilling a role of being like a family that the youth never had before,” she said.
She hopes that once the research is complete, her work will help shape future programs to support youth finding ways out of poverty.