Niagara organization works to bridge the gap between child welfare and adulthood

With support, at-risk youth get the time and space to become successful adults. Graham Duggan

In the CBC Docs POV documentary Next of Kin, we follow young adults as they search for family members they’ve never known.

They did so with the help of “RAFT” (Resource Association for Teens), an organization that offers assistance and services to at-risk youth. For nearly 25 years, RAFT has been helping young people (aged 16-24) in vulnerable circumstances.

In Canada, 57 per cent of youth who have experienced homelessness have also had involvement in child welfare services. When youth age out of provincial or territorial care, they lose access to support and often have few places to turn for help.

Based in Niagara, Ontario, RAFT began as a drop-in centre for homeless youth, but the centre evolved. “We quickly realized that to create actual change, we needed to take a different approach and get ahead of the problem,” says Mike Lethby, Executive Director of RAFT.

The association’s services are based on the “HELP” standards: Health, Employment, Life Skills, and Prevention, offering programs that best suit the needs of the individual — everything from the immediate need of a clean bed and safe space, to building life skills, including financial literacy.

RAFT’s programs are designed to help youth transition into adulthood at their own pace. “We welcome youth who are aging out of child welfare as well as those who have had to move away from home,” says Lethby. “We help them to develop and pursue their goals, working to identify and navigate any services or resources specific to their needs.”

The Programs
Finding housing

Many of RAFT’s clients find themselves homeless, even if periodically, and the organization assists youth in finding independent and permanent housing through their Housing First program, working with youth to develop and pursue their goals as they navigate their way to self-sufficiency and adulthood. However, there are other ways that RAFT offers help.

Finding homeless youth stable living
Transitioning to independence

When youth age-out of the child welfare system, the transition can be a tough one. “Having little to no family, and suddenly no support workers, isolation is a common outcome. It’s the isolation that is the real driver of homelessness” says Lethby. The Youth in Transition program works to successfully move those leaving the welfare system into independent adulthood.

“We have a relationship with child welfare services in our area, and we work together to identify youth that may end up being at risk, in an attempt to prevent youth from needing emergency services in the future.”

After school hours

Through their After School Program, RAFT is able to provide free and accessible recreation, leisure and learning during the most vulnerable time of a child’s day.

“We even have an in-school program where we try to identify children who may be at risk of homelessness in the future” says Lethby. Those who may be vulnerable to neglect or abuse in the home, or who may have disassociated family members and have fewer places to turn for assistance are offered information and assistance.

“We offer our services to any youth who could benefit, providing all the info and the open door. It’s up to them to make that step inside...and then we go to work.”

Building on what works

Lethby recognizes that programs can ebb and flow over the years, depending on priorities in the community. When RAFT hits on something that works, scaling it up can often be difficult as funding is always a challenge for non-profits.

“We’d love to take our successes and extend them to every person that needs them, but our geography plays a role in our funding.” says Lethby.

With more education, more awareness and more communication about what RAFT has been able to accomplish, Lethby hopes to see a lot more of these programs across Canada in the future.

Watch Next of Kin on CBC Docs POV