When she “aged out” of provincial government care a decade ago, Katherine McParland had a plan. One of fewer than half of youth in care to graduate high school in British Columbia, McParland was enrolled in Thompson Rivers University’s human service diploma program, a precursor to a social work degree.
She had been through a lot in her 19 years. Taken permanently into government care in primary school, McParland cycled through dozens of foster homes before moving out on her own at 16.
But she still wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop of losing all her Ministry of Children and Family Development supports on her 19th birthday.
“It’s almost the same trauma of apprehension,” McParland told me when we met over coffee at a Kamloops Starbucks in mid-November.
At the time her support ended, McParland was doing informal research for a non-profit group on the fate of 30 former “foster siblings” who’d aged out before her. Nearly 80 per cent were homeless.
“Being a youth that was experiencing the aging-out process myself, and then seeing the detrimental impacts of that, I fell hard,” she said.
Soon after, McParland said she was evicted from her apartment and she too became homeless. She would spend three years on the street before a contact from her time in care rented her a hotel room, and helped find her permanent housing.
Today McParland has her diploma, her social work degree, and is youth homelessness manager at Interior Community Services. But her biggest achievement to date is the four years she’s spent building a committee to end youth homelessness in Kamloops, beginning with meeting connections from work, and her own time in care, at a vacant restaurant.
Today, the A Way Home committee involves 50 different organizations and works to implement the City of Kamloops’ youth homelessness action plan, whose name it shares. In just a year and a half, AWH has streamlined services for at-risk youth under 25, provided housing for 92 youth, and reconnected another six young people with their families.
But the initiative’s impact has gone way beyond its local region. The name and model have been adopted by Canada’s National Coalition to End Homelessness and internationally, with A Way Home America and A Way Home Scotland.
“We still have room to grow,” McParland said. “But we’ve actually really revolutionized services in Kamloops compared to 10 years ago. It’s now 115 people, all sectors: businesses, landlords, non-profits, Aboriginal agencies on and off-reserve, youth. All partners.”
(If the name “A Way Home” sounds familiar, it may also be because The Tyee covered the housing aspect of the program back in 2015. But a lot has changed since then.)
A force of trusted adults
Prior to the AWH committee, a youth coming to the non-profit Interior Community Services, for example, could only apply there for one of that agency’s housing units. If they wanted to access housing from another agency like ASK Wellness, a harm reduction and housing non-profit, they had to apply separately at its office.
Today, anytime a youth walks into any social service agency that’s connected to AWH, they can access services or housing from every one of its member agencies. McParland describes it as “wrapping” services around the young person, hence the model’s name: “Wrap Force.”
With a young person’s consent, their personal information and an assessment of their needs are shared with AWH’s housing sub-committee. It assigns each young person a “wrap force” of people chosen to help meet their goals from 17 different support organizations.
Members of a “wrap force” could, for example, include a substance use counsellor, a youth empowerment worker and a mental health clinician. “Then as a team, we figure out which of our different housing options will best meet the needs of the youth,” said McParland.
Homeless youth often lack the trusted adult relationships that parented kids have. Add to that a lack of co-ordination between provincial health, housing, education and employment supports, and finding help becomes daunting for any youth.
The “wrap force” team become those trusted adults who guide youth through securing a variety of help based on the young person’s goals, until they achieve stability and independence.
“They’ll follow [the youth] as they go from safe suite, to transition housing, to permanent housing,” McParland said.
Increasing housing for youth
Prior to May 2015, when McParland was hired as youth homelessness manager and co-ordinator for AWH, paid by Interior Community Services, there were five units of youth-specific supportive housing in Kamloops, at ICS’ Acadia housing development.
In 18 months, AWH has created 15 more, for a total of 20 youth-specific beds. This doesn’t include the four units for young Indigenous men leaving care offered by Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services, Métis Nation British Columbia and Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Society.
In addition to four scattered site private rentals, there are 16 non-profit housing beds for youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
The non-profit beds are transitional, meant to help bridge the gap between shelters and permanent housing such as the four private rental units. But youth with addictions, trauma or mental health issues often need help even before they’re ready to move into transitional housing.
A “safe suite,” McParland calls it, a place to stabilize with “zero barriers” to access. “With a lot of transition housing there’s requirements like no substance use [or] guests,” she said. “With the safe suite, it’s come as you are, true ‘housing-first.’”
Such spaces aren’t easy to create. Youth need supports along with shelter: someone to check in on them, daily if necessary, and help them learn the life skills necessary to live on their own, “which is a struggle to do without 24-hour staff,” McParland said.
Struggle with safe suites
In July 2015, AWH designated four of the 10 youth-specific units in the Acadia housing development as “safe suites” for hard-to-house youth aged 18 to 24. But there wasn’t enough funding to hire round-the-clock support staff.
“When we would leave, the downtown core would come in,” McParland said. “So girls were being sexually exploited, drug dealing, suicide attempts, you name it.”
Of the four youth who moved into the safe suites, only one moved on to permanent housing. Deemed a failure, the suites were shut down until AWH can secure the estimated $411,100 needed to hire 24-7 support staff.
Considered existing safe suites in Kamloops are: one unit designated for a youth with a heroin addiction at the Crossroads, an ASK Wellness housing facility for addicted adults; two beds in a Kamloops Native Housing town house called Graces’ Place, for young Indigenous women; and a two-bedroom unit at Kamloops Native Housing’s Twin Feathers building, for a young mom and her kids. (Anyone who stays in the Twin Feathers unit also goes to the top of the Kamloops Native Housing Society or Elizabeth Fry Society’s waitlists for more permanent housing.)
But those beds are aimed at youth who check off particular demographic boxes — Indigenous young women and children, young heroin users. For a general street youth population estimated to run to 20 people over any given year, only four beds are available.
As a result, half of 73 youth referred to AWH for housing help between January and October of 2016 weren’t successfully accommodated. As McParland sees it, the lack of safe suites is the biggest barrier to ending youth homelessness in Kamloops.
“We strive to have zero discharges, but it doesn’t always play out that way,” she said. “Which is why we need the safe suite with 24-hour staff.”
Action on employment
The wrap force is just one half of AWH’s housing team, though. The other half dedicates its time to securing new youth housing units.
The committee is working with Thompson Rivers University’s carpentry program on a plan to build tiny homes less than 400 square-feet in size. Although the project is not yet off the ground, the idea is to offer homeowners the houses at a discounted rate — provided they rent them for a certain period of time to youth at risk of homelessness. AWH finds the tenant and pays for repair. Homeowners collect the rent.
Another AWH action team, focusing on education and employment, recently secured five annual bursaries for youth in “wrap force” housing from Thompson Rivers University, and another two for the university’s summertime trades discovery program.
A soon-to-launch youth employment group will use employment agencies’ and university faculty connections to match youth interested in work with jobs in their skillset.
Grayden Flanagan owns nine Subway restaurants in Kamloops. Before he got involved with AWH, he assumed that youth on the street were too lazy to get a job.
“As a businessperson, I see a lot of people try to do as little as they can and try to get as much as they can,” he said, adding that his opinion is not uncommon in the community.
“But there is so much stuff piled up against [these youth],” he now says. “There’s nothing lazy about it. They’re not given an opportunity, period.”
AWH’s aptly named “prevention action” team aims to stop homelessness before it starts. Headed by a Ministry of Children and Family Development representative, the team will soon launch its own wrap force to support 16 to 18 year-olds in care who want to live on their own with ministry supports — allowed under special agreement.
Support workers from addictions, mental health, education, employment and other related services will help youth plan for living solo and aging out of government care. It’s a meeting that youth in provincial care are supposed to have already with their social worker before they turn 19 and lose provincial support, but often don’t get.
AWH hopes to make sure those youth get hooked up, only with more time with helpers, and direct connections to all the services its partners offer.
Seeking stable, secure funding
Youth Against Youth Homelessness is the committee’s latest action team, led by and for youth to offer insight on solutions for their homeless peers. Co-chaired by two youth who have lived in Acadia’s transitional youth housing, the team had its first leadership meeting this past October.
“The ultimate goal is to work in tandem with A Way Home in helping prevent youth homelessness in any way possible,” said Daniel, one of the co-chairs. He also co-chairs the larger A Way Home committee.
“Right now we’re working on art pieces for [AWH] funders. But in the future we’ll work with the different support teams in how they can develop programs that are more in tune with youth homelessness.”
The idea of A Way Home is to leverage the resources Kamloops already has to end and prevent youth homelessness. But with 250 youth expected to be homeless — if not on the street — in Kamloops for at least some time this year, more housing is clearly needed.
“In our community we use a lot of hotels for [temporary] housing,” McParland said, a controversial practice when it has been used by the Ministry of Children and Family Development to house youth in government care. “It’s just a lack of housing.”
To be more effective, she says, AWH needs more money. Preferably permanent provincial or federal funding that won’t be cut in an austerity budget.
“There’s a very good business sense for it,” said Kamloops city councillor Tina Lange, who sits on the AWH committee. “We all know that somebody on the street costs us more than somebody we give a locking door to. By looking after youth when they’re young, we would avoid so many costs down the road to our health system, mental health system, RCMP, all of them.”
With that in mind, AWH also has a fund development action team. Its members are employees of local businesses including Kamloops’ Honda, Home Hardware, Home Depot and Flanagan’s Subway stores. Many have donated their own money to subsidize the rent of youth living in private suites. Flanagan, for one, estimates he’s donated $3,600 in cash and another $5,000 worth of Subway food to AWH in 2016.
Recently the committee organized a fundraiser with Jack Canfield, celebrated self-help co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. It raised $35,000 for A Way Home.
But Flanagan said “it’s going to be a few years” for AWH to reach its goal. Citing the difficulties that the local hospital and Thompson Rivers University have faced raising money, he notes: “It’s taken them 10 years.”
McParland has seen a change for youth aging out of care. But she won’t know how big a difference her own efforts have made until the results of Canada’s first-ever youth homelessness count, conducted in Kamloops in October, are released later this month.
With an economy increasingly structured for inequality and precarious employment, the flow of homeless and at-risk youth to centres like Kamloops is unlikely to end soon. But McParland is adamant that neither she nor her AWH partners will stop until all Kamloops’ youth are housed, safe and supported.