Preventing Homelessness Among Young People In The Child Protection System

A red desert landscape including traditional digamous housing
Navajo homes, Monument Valley, New Mexico. Traditions and family can anchor homeless youth. More about such features that can support indigenous youth are visible in this picture and are described here.

An article from New Mexico (linked below) describes an appalling systems failure. Young people in care (the care of the state) are not getting access to mental health and/or substance treatment programs.

The situation developed following a court settlement where the state government agreed to transform its treatment programs. As part of the transformation, many of the existing residential treatment programs were shut down. Currently, there are very long waiting lists for the existing treatment programs, especially for teenagers.

Without treatment beds to offer, child protection workers have been transferring young people who need care to temporary emergency shelters for homeless youths. These emergency facilities are not intended for long term stays (maximum 72 hours), yet teens who are wards of the state have ended up staying more than a year while waiting for a space in a treatment program to open up.

The author recounts the failures of the system through data, interviews, and the experience of Jaidryon Platero. At 16, Platero tried to kill himself when cornered by police. This got him admitted to a psychiatric unit in a hospital on the other side of the state for two weeks. Hospital professionals recommended follow up treatment in a residential facility. With no spaces available, Platero was discharged to an emergency youth shelter.

Platero believed that his best option was to live with his grandmother, who lived in Farmington next to the Navajo Nation. This plan was ruled out by social workers, who assessed that his grandmother wasn’t able to care for him. Platero wasn’t willing to take no for an answer and kept pressing his case.

Just before his 18th birthday, after many more stays at emergency shelters, escapes from care, and a stay at a treatment centre that didn’t work out, the state’s child protection agency agreed to Platero’s request. He has since moved on and now lives in permanent housing. He considers himself lucky:

“I got something a lot of people don’t get, which is a second chance.”

The article about New Mexico identifies many shortcomings in the child welfare system there, but it is far from the only place where homelessness is strongly associated with time spent in care as a young person. The rest of this post is about three different initiatives to change systems so that young people in care avoid becoming homeless.

The first is from Montréal, in the form of a research project undertaken by people with experience of homelessness. Like Platero in New Mexico, many of the young people who participated in the Montréal study had definite ideas of what they needed to turn their lives around. The people who contributed to the study:

    • hoped that schools would help them before they became homeless,
    • feared asking for help because they didn’t believe that people in authority would listen to them or take their ideas seriously,
    • talked about the beneficial role played by individuals in the system who had been advocates, coaches and mentors, and
    • directed their recommendations to prevent homelessness to schools, police, child protection services and community agencies that provide services to people who are homeless.

A second research project took place in three communities in Ontario. In this case, 24 homeless young people received a subsidy to help pay for housing. The subsidies were portable, which gave them flexibility in choosing where they would live. Six of the study participants used the subsidy to live with their families. This echoes Platero’s experience in New Mexico, whose first choice was to live with his grandmother.

The third example comes from Edmonton, where an Indigenous housing provider is operating a multi-generational housing project. The project is designed specifically to prevent homelessness by providing permanent housing to Indigenous youth who are aging out of the child welfare system. The building has self-contained units as well as common spaces for people in the building to meet up with other residents and support staff. There are also opportunities to learn about and participate in sweats and ceremonies that are part of Indigenous world view.

Residents and staff offer informal and formal support to the young residents who are leaving care. It is an approach that could be of interest in other communities where minority groups are over-represented in the child protection system.

You can read more about Platero and others who are in care in New Mexico in the Rolling Stone: These Foster Kids Need Mental Health Care. New Mexico Is Putting Them in Homeless Shelters

You can read the research by people with experience of homelessness in Montréal at the Homeless Hub: Learning from Youth with Lived Experience to Realize Homelessness Prevention in Schools: Learnings from Tio’tiá:ke/Montréal and an open access article in Society and Mental Health: Health System Access for Precariously Housed Youth: A Participatory Youth Research Project

There is an open access article about the income support research in Ontario in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Effect of Portable Rent Subsidies and Mentorship on Socioeconomic Inclusion for Young People Exiting Homelessness A Community-Based Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial

For more on the project in Edmonton, see this podcast from On the Way Home: Preventing Indigenous Youth Homelessness