Maytree blog

How Making the Shift, a social innovation lab, is working to prevent youth homelessness

Published on 04/03/2020

You might be surprised to learn that 20 per cent of our homeless population comprises youth between the ages of 13 and 25. Despite these numbers, homelessness strategies and responses — like emergency shelters and soup kitchens — are designed for adults, and fail to respond to the distinct causes of youth homelessness or the distinct challenges faced by homeless youth.

Making the Shift is a multi-stakeholder social innovation lab that aims to change this. The project works to move our systems away from managing youth homelessness through crisis responses, and toward preventing it. By bringing together researchers, frontline service providers, policymakers, and experts in allied fields, the innovation lab is working to design, document, and evaluate new programs that would prevent youth from becoming homeless in the first place and ensure better outcomes once they exit homelessness.

We spoke to Stephen Gaetz (President & CEO, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness), Melanie Redman (President & CEO, A Way Home Canada), and Julia Lalande (Managing Director, Making the Shift) about this ambitious new undertaking.

What is Making the Shift? What does it hope to achieve?

Making the Shift is what we call a Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Laboratory. It is designed to develop knowledge and understanding of how to more effectively respond to youth homelessness in a way that respects the rights of young people. It’s built upon a belief that the current response to homelessness in Canada, the United States, and in many countries, while well-meaning, is not helping people in the way that it should, and may actually be producing harm.

The current response to homelessness emphasizes emergency services, a crisis response. We believe we need to shift our approach and our investment toward preventing young people from becoming homeless in the first place and, for those who are homeless, helping them exit homelessness in a way that means they don’t return to homelessness again.

Why does youth homelessness require a different approach?

The causes and conditions of homelessness for youth are distinct from those of adults.

For instance, young people often leave because of family conflict, and they do not have the experience or means to live independently. If they’re, say, racialized youth, trans, and homeless, there are multiple barriers complicating matters.

Another important driver of youth homelessness is the systems that exit young people into homelessness. Those systems are child protection (when you age out of care), corrections (when people exit the juvenile justice system), and sometimes the mental health and health care systems as well.

All of these challenges require specific responses, but we apply adult models with a little bit of youth work butter on top, and think that shelters are the best we can do.

Research shows that even when young people are supported through these existing services to exit homelessness, or if they get themselves out of homelessness, they’re not living well. They’re living very precarious lives: poverty, social exclusion, not returning to education and employment. If we want Canada’s most vulnerable young people to get to education and employment outcomes, we need to do things differently.

If you look at all people in Canada who are homeless, 50 per cent had their first experience before they were 25. If we don’t put in maximum effort to address young people’s homelessness, we are actually setting the stage for long-term chronic homelessness. If we produce better outcomes for young people and their families, we would also likely have an impact on the homelessness problem writ large.

Who is involved in this project?

Making the Shift is a partnership between the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada. The Canadian Observatory is a research institute that works in collaboration with partners to conduct and mobilize research to have an impact on homelessness, and A Way Home works to transform policy, planning, and practice on youth homelessness.

We believe that homelessness can’t be solved by the homelessness sector alone or by homelessness researchers. It has to be a systems approach, because all these other systems are implicated in the creation and sustaining of homelessness.

So we work with researchers on youth homelessness, as well as with researchers in allied fields, like legal and justice issues.

What we’re doing is taking all of these different sectors that can help influence the positive shift we’re seeking and mobilizing them all in one direction.

The project has now been funded and established as part of the Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada, a federal initiative that funds partnerships between universities, industry, government, and not-for-profit organizations to create large-scale research networks.

Can you tell us about your research agenda?

The Making the Shift research program is guided by five intersecting research themes designed to most effectively achieve its mandate:

  1. Shifting to prevention and early intervention;
  2. Sustaining exits from homelessness;
  3. Enhancing outcomes for Indigenous youth;
  4. Enabling health, wellbeing, and inclusion; and
  5. Using data and technology to drive policy and practice.

We’re also working really hard to do our best to address the history of colonialism and its impact on homelessness, and work in positive ways to address truth and reconciliation.

Making the Shift has three demonstration projects under way. First of all, what is a demonstration project?

A demonstration project is more than a pilot project. A demonstration project involves the design and implementation of a program model or a policy. There’s that front-end design work, the testing out of the intervention, and then rigorous research and evaluation. I mean both outcomes evaluation and developmental evaluation, the latter of which is not only to understand how to do these things well but also how to improve them.

Can you tell us more about the projects and their objectives?
Funded in 2017 by the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy (YESS), MtS DEMS offers a space to develop, refine and test three models of prevention in 12 sites across Ontario and Alberta – Housing First for Youth, Youth Reconnect, and Enhancing Family and Natural Supports.

Housing First is one of the only evidence-based interventions in the world of homelessness, but it was designed for adults. The Housing First for Youth program model adapts that approach.

Housing First for Youth means giving young people housing without preconditions, and wrapping around the supports that they need to help them sustain their housing but also focus on their wellbeing. It’s not just a housing program.

In Ottawa, the model is focusing on currently homeless young people with a sub-focus on young people exiting corrections. In Toronto, it’s focusing on young people leaving care; in Hamilton, it’s focusing on Indigenous youth. The Hamilton project is interesting because we work with Indigenous partners to ensure that it’s an Indigenous-led version of Housing First for Youth. The research side of it is Indigenous-led as well.

The second approach is Youth Reconnect, which is a school-based early intervention program that is being done in Hamilton. We’re working with our Indigenous partners in Hamilton, again, on how to adapt that approach so it makes sense for Indigenous youth. What it’s allowing them to do there is reach the 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds. We can do that because we go into the schools. We meet young people and their families, and work to support them.

The final approach is Enhancing Family and Natural Supports. Historically in the world of homelessness, family is often seen as irrelevant, or as part of the past, or even the problem. But we believe the family can and should be important for anybody in their life. All those 27-year-olds living with their parents, it’s because they have family.

We are working in Alberta in seven different communities, and in Toronto across the homelessness sector. It’s a pan-system, family and natural supports program.

You’re wrapping up Phase One of the project this year. What do you have planned as you move into Phase Two?

The focus of Phase Two is scale and sustainability. We’re learning enough and communities are moving fast enough that they want to implement this work and come up alongside our demonstration project partners. We can’t stop them, we can’t say, “Wait till we have five years of solid research before you try and implement Youth Reconnect.” It doesn’t work like that at all.

It’s really important that you continue to foster that community of practice and develop solid tools and resources that support communities to implement. That’s going to be a huge focus for Phase Two.

We’ll also see the expansion of the project officially into British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. And we’re adding three more Housing First for Youth sites in Toronto in collaboration with CAMH focusing on high acuity mental health and addictions. We’ll learn a lot about supporting that population and how we can harness something like CAMH.

To learn more about Making the Shift, visit or email

Making the Shift has also released a new report with lessons from its three demonstration projects.

Gayatri Kumar is a freelance communications specialist.


We spoke to Stephen Gaetz (President & CEO, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness), Melanie Redman (President & CEO, A Way Home Canada), and Julia Lalande (Managing Director, Making the Shift) about this ambitious new undertaking.