Keeping Kids off the Street
Collective solutions to youth homelessness
The Catherine Donnelly Foundation
“It was Christmas time. It was really cold, and I felt so alone…invisible, although I was screaming for help inside.”
That’s how Katherine McParland describes an early moment in her life on the street. Even after moving between 28 foster homes while growing up, she’d managed to graduate high school, get her own place and enroll at Thompson Rivers University. Then, on aging out of foster care at 19, Katherine lost critical support. This led to eviction, followed by two and a half years without a home, “every hour a struggle for survival.”
After getting back to stable housing, though, Katherine earned her degree in social work. She is now employed by Interior Community Services of British Columbia, helping young people find their own way off the streets—and avoid such situations to begin with.
In doing so, she has helped lead a remarkable effort to end youth homelessness in Kamloops. Recently, Katherine was also appointed to the federal government’s Advisory Committee on Homelessness, where her passionate advocacy can inform national policy.
But she and other reformers face a grim status quo. Every year, up to 40,000 young Canadians experience homelessness. These are already some of society’s most vulnerable: nearly 30% are LGBTQ2S and 31% Indigenous, with 63% having experienced childhood violence or other abuse. And 42% reported at least one suicide attempt. Plus the longer they spend homeless, the higher their odds of further exploitation, mental illness and addiction—which only make escape through work or education harder.
So what can be done?
Fixes for a Broken System
Confronting this challenge spurred the Catherine Donnelly Foundation (CDF) to launch a radical experiment, which led to its support for Katherine’s work in Kamloops.
The foundation was established in 2003 by the Sisters of Service, a Toronto-based progressive Catholic community once active across Canada. Its members were reaching the ends of their working lives, but wanted a way to continue their social mission: helping those who are otherwise marginalized and excluded. To do so, the foundation focuses on advancing social and ecological justice.
For many years, the sisters ran women’s hostels in various cities across Canada. So housing—and particularly homelessness—was a priority from the start.
The CDF initially took a quite traditional approach, inviting grant applications from individual organizations and offering a year’s support for each project accepted. Quite quickly, though, foundation General Director Valerie Lemieux recalls them wondering “this is all well and good, but…are we really transforming society?”
“Forty-two percent of homeless youth reported at least one suicide attempt.”
The federal government’s withdrawal from housing policy since the mid-1990s meant aging infrastructure, and “people scrambling to bridge…a patchwork of programs, [with] decades to try and make up for.” However successful any single project might be, it couldn’t make up for the “broken” system. So the CDF started searching for alternatives.
The key seemed to be prevention, rather than simply increasing crisis services such as shelter beds. A relatively small grantmaker, the foundation decided to work “upstream” and focus on helping homeless youth. As Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Director Dr. Stephen Gaetz puts it, “if that 13-year-old is couch surfing, let’s get them there—before they’re 18 and on the streets of downtown Vancouver with a needle in their arm.”
But that’s far easier said than achieved.
“If that 13-year-old is couch surfing, let’s get them there—before they’re 18…with a needle in their arm.”
Many organizations deal with youth at risk—from schools, hospitals and workplaces to government and non-profit social services—so should be able to help. But coordination is critical. And once the CDF began convening discussions among many of the country’s best-respected researchers and youth-serving agencies, it became clear there was no shared definition of “youth homelessness,” let alone a shared plan.
Such disconnects can have tragic costs. What happened to Katherine, for instance, was part of a broader pattern: too often, young people in foster care don’t receive the skills or support to live independently after aging out of the system. So a shocking number end up on the street.
Preventing such systemic failures, the foundation concluded, would require a move from supporting individual organizations’ one-off projects to much broader and longer-term collaboration.
A Way Home
Beginning in 2012, the CDF tried simply helping communities coordinate their responses to youth homelessness. It started pilot projects in Kingston and Kamloops, supporting connections among municipal and provincial governments and non-profits such as the United Way.
These plans made a difference. In Kamloops, the process led to a committee with representatives from over 50 local organizations and businesses, which Katherine helped organize. They arranged a dedicated social service team for each young person deemed at risk, and conducted the region’s first “point in time” count of homeless youth—basic numbers most communities lack. Beyond reconnecting several youth with their families and helping others find jobs, the committee also more than tripled supportive housing spaces available to those transitioning away from living in shelters.
By 2015, such successes gave rise to A Way Home, a national coalition devoted to ending youth homelessness. Named after the original Kamloops program, its members range from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness to Egale and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Coalition staff not only help communities follow established paths to success, but also develop new solutions. Increasing evidence, for instance, shows that simply giving people someplace to live is far cheaper (and more humane) than managing the crises that homelessness causes. In its Infinity Project, the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary applied this approach to youth. It showed that housing young people in their own home costs an average of $39 per day, versus $82 in a shelter—or $250 in detention. So to test how such “housing first” programs for youth run best, A Way Home has launched pilot projects with local partners in communities including Hamilton and Ottawa.
Such work has only been possible because of A Way Home’s success enlisting government support. Beyond individual cities, it has made the case for collective change to Canadian provinces and secured $7.99 million in federal funding for its housing program testing. This reflects the coalition’s power to amplify and channel public concerns about the issue. And as the federal government prepares to roll out its new National Housing Strategy—the promised $40 billion investment over ten years representing its first major re-engagement on the issue since the mid-1990s—A Way Home recently hired its first full-time policy director.
Ultimately, the coalition can’t work directly with every community that wants to implement more collective solutions. So it has also provided open access to its planning resources, making them freely available to anyone. This has encouraged the approach’s adoption not just across Canada but internationally, with distinct A Way Home organizations also now operating in the United States and Scotland.
Embracing the End
For Valerie, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation’s General Director, the key to all these successes was giving up control.
By asking organizations the CDF funds to work together, with common goals and standards, “we were asking them to check egos and personal agendas at the door.” And this is hard partly because of how traditional granting works: “these organizations are in competition,” Valerie explains, and “we set up that dynamic as funders [when] we pick and choose.”
The CDF likewise grew more effective when it stepped away from a funder’s usual authority, becoming instead one of many parties at the table. From the beginning, its housing programming’s emphasis on building resources and connections between organizations came from its expert partners, such as Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth. And those partners have continued to drive priorities. Similarly, A Way Home ensures that homeless young people have a voice in shaping programs, which benefit from their insights.
“Housing young people in their own home costs an average of $39 per day, versus $82 in a shelter.”
The CDF and its partners have also kept looking for other backers to help develop these projects, and to share the credit. At the local level, for instance, Katherine explains how Kamloops businesses helped subsidize rent for youth transitioning out of shelters: “We have a Subway house; Honda donated $10,000, so we have a couple of Honda houses; and Home Depot has also [donated].” At the national level, Valerie joined A Way Home staff in pitching other possible backers—a first in her philanthropic career. So while the Catherine Donnelly Foundation itself provided seed funding for the early pilot projects, this has ultimately led to far greater investment: governments aside, the CDF has now established the A Way Home Funders Table and been joined by the Home Depot Canada Foundation, Maytree and the Laidlaw Foundation, among others.
The CDF’s emphasis on prevention also has some radical implications. Because many grantees exist to serve homeless people, the funders are effectively asking them to embrace “putting themselves out of business.” And the Catherine Donnelly Foundation has come to a similar view of its own work.
The Sisters of Service originally intended their foundation as a permanent legacy. But when the 2008 financial crisis put pressure on its endowment, protecting the ability to keep giving perpetually would have meant reducing program support. “What are we here for?” the staff and board asked themselves. “To do this, not to make money.” Committed to changing the system, they continued granting at the same levels. So although the foundation plans to distribute its funds over at least another 30 years, it may ultimately wind down earlier.
Some of the surviving sisters are still involved with the CDF, remaining an inspiration for its work. And as Valerie vividly remembers one saying, “Look, we’re dying—and that’s OK. Nothing lives forever.”