'Listen to the youth': Edmonton housing program highlights success at conference

Workers who are on the front lines trying to house Alberta's homeless will hear from a former street youth about the best ways to connect with young people in crisis.

Staff and former street youth to bring message of hope to homeless forum

Kyle is one of 100 young people who have been housed under the Youth Housing First program, which started in June 2016. (Gareth Hampshire CBC News)

Whenever Kyle looked for help to turn his life around he ran into people willing to help as long as he did what he was told.

But that all changed last year when he entered the Youth Housing First program run by Edmonton's Homeward Trust.

"It's the switch from apathy to purpose," Kyle said of the new outlook he got from the program, set up for youth who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. "I myself had a tendency to rebel."

The model, started as a pilot project in June 2016, helps young people find housing and connects them to the supports and services they want.

Before entering the program, Kyle, 24, spent a couple of months sleeping in shelters and tents because of family problems and drug use.

I went from chaos to being able to think- Kyle, Youth Housing First client

After taking advantage of the psychological help he was offered, as well as counselling for street drug use he knew was a problem, he graduated from the nine-month program a different person.

"I went from chaos to being able to think," he said, adding he has started a job and is considering going back to school in the fall.

Kyle, who doesn't want his last name used because of the stigma attached to homelessness, is one of 100 young people who have been housed under the strategy.

It spawned from number of reports that identified a growing problem with young people who had nowhere to live, beginning with the homeless count in 2014.

That led the next year to a community strategy to end youth homelessness. The most recent homeless count in 2016 showed numbers of young people on the street has gone down dramatically.

Kyle will talk Thursday about why the Youth Housing First approach works for young people in crisis at the 7 cities Conference on Housing First and Homelessness conference in Edmonton.

It's bringing together frontline workers from Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, who will share ideas about trying to end homelessness.

The manager of youth programs and partnerships at Homeward Trust, Suzanne Kassian, will be presenting alongside Kyle. 

"Listen to the youth," Kassian said. "They often feel like they don't have a voice, and the main focus of our program is hearing the youth and taking into consideration what it is that they need and want."

Suzanne Kassian says at Youth Housing First the first thing workers do is ask young people what they need to help them achieve their goals. (Gareth Hampshire CBC News)

Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate has said several times young people aren't listened to enough, and the CEO of Homeward Trust said the concept allows them to define their own success.

"It's a really fundamental aspect of the program and one where we empower youth to address their challenges their way," McGee said.

The Youth Housing First initiative is no longer a pilot project but a full program funded by Homeward Trust.

Kyle said he would likely still be on the street had he not qualified for it, and it's now his goal to share his perspective with workers at the conference. 

"I'm offering insights that may not have been available to the workers," he said.

About 300 people are expected to attend the conference at the Shaw Conference Centre on Thursday and Friday.