Homeless in Vancouver: Closure of youth safe house blamed on Housing First

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It’s wrong for the Federal government to take homelessness funding away from sheltering at-risk teenagers to give it instead to Housing First programs aimed at adults.

      According to an item in Thursday’s Province newspaper, the only youth shelter in Maple Ridge (for teens 13 to 18), will be forced to close on December 31 when its federal funding dries up. Reportedly the federal government wants to redirect more of its funding towards permanent housing, meaning “Housing First” programs.

      But even advocates of Housing First will tell you that it’s not really for kids. The strategy of putting homeless people in government-paid-for social housing before you do anything else for them was specifically designed to address adult homelessness. As for adapting it to address youth homelessness…well, they’re working on it.

      In the meantime there are so few youth shelters in the Metro Vancouver area that we really can’t afford to lose even one.

      Housing First still puts youth last

      You don’t normally give a 15-year-old their own apartment.

      I have to say that it didn’t work out so well 38 years ago when the Government of Saskatchewan tried to set me up in an apartment at that tender age. Perhaps that was just me but probably not.

      Advocates say the Housing First approach needs to be carefully adapted to fit the needs of homeless youth and the community around Housing First is engaged in a process to do just that.

      Part of that process is a report published this month by the Homeless Hub called “A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth”. The author Stephen Gaetz begins by bluntly saying of the Housing First model:

      “We cannot take an established approach that works for adults and simply create Housing First “Junior” by changing the age mandate.”

      Whatever Housing First is, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to all homelessness—it doesn’t fit the requirements of young people that well at all, as Gaetz says in his conclusion:

      “The causes of youth homelessness are unique and so are the remedies. We can no longer be satisfied by taking adult approaches to addressing homelessness and make “homelessness junior.” Any response to youth homelessness must address the needs of developing adolescents and young adults.”

      The Housing First movement says that youth shouldn’t spend any length of time in shelters but it doesn’t have the alternatives in place to replace youth shelters such as the one in Maple Ridge.

      It seems irresponsible to defund existing youth shelters before the necessary Housing First alternatives to youth shelters are actually built and up and running.

      It may not be much but it’s all Maple Ridge has

      The Iron Horse Youth Safe House is a five-bed shelter for teens aged 13 to 18 in Maple Ridge. It has operated since 2005 and helps about 100 teens a year, according to the Province report.

      The shelter is run by the non-profit Alouette Home Start Society, which also operates, on behalf of the municipality and the provincial government, a 45-unit supportive housing complex in Maple Ridge called Alouette Heights. The society also provides homeless outreach to the Maple Ridge area.

      According to a story in the the Maple Ridge News, the shelter has always relied on the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy to pay most of its $375,000 budget.

      The Society says it cannot afford to keep the shelter open when and if the federal funding is withdrawn at the end of 2014.

      Stephanie Ediger, executive-director of the Alouette Home Start Society, told the Maple Ridge News that though the B.C. government does support other youth shelters in the province, they do not fund her youth shelter, the only one in Maple Ridge.

      Ediger has been talking with the B.C. Ministry of Children but the ministry has so far not agreed to pick up the tab in 2015 and the shelter has had no choice but to give layoff notices to its 20 or so part-time and casual staff.

      Apparently B.C. prefers to leave the funding of youth shelters to the senior level of government and private faith-based organizations such as Covenant House.

      In fact, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Children explained to the Province that it was not the Ministry’s practice to refer young people to safe houses such as the Iron Horse, and that it preferred to place youth in foster homes or support them returning to live with their families.

      All I can say to that is that I wish there had been youth safe houses when I was a kid; foster homes can be worse than living on the street—such a crap shoot!

      Unfortunately the closure of the Iron Horse Youth Safe House is guaranteed to leave some kids in the cold.

      Of the remaining nine or so youth shelters, none are in Maple Ridge and the closest alternative, the All Nations Youth Safe House is quite a distance away—maybe 25 kilometres—in the neighbouring municipality of Surrey. Most youth shelters are in Vancouver, which is nearly twice as far.

      The simple fact is there aren’t enough youth shelters in the Metro Vancouver region to justify closing even one.

      And by competing for the finite funding dollars for homeless youth, the Housing First movement is actually threatening to make life worse for some of B.C’s most disadvantaged teenagers.

      Housing First will take their money but currently has nothing to offer these kids except promises.

      I bet they get enough of those already.

      Some praise for Housing First

      Whether it offers the long-term solution to homelessness it promises remains to be seen, but there’s no taking away the fact that Housing First is the only game in town actively increasing physical housing stock for ultra low-income people. If nothing else, it’s replacing and improving on the diminishing stock of ultra low-income housing on the Downtown Eastside.

      And even if a lot of it ends up becoming a slummy kind of revolving door—a holiday off the streets for as long as the welfare holds out—advocates will still be able to rightly say it’s a success.

      A goose that promises to lay golden eggs

      The Housing First strategy is neat in the way it turns a complicated social problem into a simple construction job. And it’s easy to measure success: how many units built, how many homeless people placed. Best of all, unlike most government funding, which goes towards an intangible result, Housing First produces something tangible, like money in the bank.

      Am I wrong in thinking that the social housing created by Housing First can always be converted to market housing?

      All things considered, I’m not surprised if governments are keen to put all their funding eggs in the Housing First basket.

      It promises to unscramble the omelette of homelessness, it’s as easy as filling an egg crate. And if it doesn’t work, the government can always sell the eggs.

      Putting aside any tendency to count its chickens before they’re hatched, Housing First sounds too good to be true.

      But I hope it is—truly a solution for homelessness, that is—I really am a sunny-side-up kind of guy.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.



      Marika Sandrelli

      Dec 6, 2014 at 10:54am

      Thank you Stanley for your succinct, insightful and important message. As Chair of Alouette Home Start Society, we are mobilizing all of our efforts to bring awareness to the lack of effective housing solutions for youth, and the problems with the current Housing First approach with youth. We all know that early intervention is key, and that youth services need to be customized to the lives of youth - this is not happening with the new funding envelopes . . .it is happening in Maple Ridge, and has for close to 10 years - our safe house has a demonstrated effective approach that has worked for hundreds of youth - and now are being forced to shut down due to funding changes for other reasons that is adult focused. I appreciate your article, and hope more people will come forward to share their concern! AHSS will continue to advocate for this necessary service.