You can’t talk about youth homelessness in British Columbia without coming across the work of Katherine McParland.
Co-founder and executive director of A Way Home Kamloops Society and co-founder of the BC Coalition to End Youth Homelessness, McParland, who died Friday of undisclosed causes, was a tireless advocate for youth experiencing homelessness.
Especially for those, such as herself, who had spent time in the child welfare system.
McParland spent much of her adult life helping other youth at risk, providing a path to permanent housing for dozens of young people no matter how “hard to house” they had been labelled.
McParland was working for Interior Community Services in 2013 when she helped the City of Kamloops pilot an innovative youth homelessness project called the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness program.
Along with 50 different community organizations, landlords, Indigenous agencies and businesses, McParland worked with youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness to design housing services tailored to a young person’s specific needs.
The eventual city plan created to end youth homelessness was called A Way Home, a name the coalition of partners that McParland worked with decided on themselves.
At any given time, approximately 20 per cent of the unhoused population in Canada is under 25, and about 35,000 youth are without housing each year. Almost one-third of those youth identify as queer or trans, another third as Indigenous and nearly 60 per cent have experience in the child welfare system.
Led by the youth, A Way Home designed a system of “wrapping” supports that included housing but wasn’t tied to a particular housing unit. Rather when a young person needed housing, several support organizations, known as the “wrap force,” would work together to scour all available housing sites for them.
But wherever the young person lived, their support system followed them to ensure they stayed on track. It meant tearing down silos between housing, education, employment, mental health and addictions services so all providers could work together to help the young person succeed.
In 18 months, A Way Home Kamloops created 15 youth-specific housing sites with wrap-around supports.
When we first spoke in 2015, McParland told me they had already housed 11 youth at risk of homelessness.
“She helped people understand that the experience of youth homelessness is not the failing of the young person,” Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth said, “but the failing of the systems that contributed to young people being in those situations.”
Inspired by their success, the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness program changed their name in 2015 to A Way Home Canada, which in turn inspired A Way Home Scotland and A Way Home America.
“She was a very passionate advocate, and very much wanting to promote the voices of young people with lived experience, lived expertise, which is a critical aspect of the work,” said Melanie Redman, president and CEO of A Way Home Canada.
“I never think it’s the healthiest thing to ask people who are very close to their own experience of trauma and homelessness to tell their story over and over and over. That can be quite harming for people who have experienced those traumas. So I think doing that work well is really critical.”
‘Katherine McParland was our daughter’
But A Way Home Kamloops would hit some setbacks. When we spoke in person in November 2016, McParland was seeking funding for 24-7 staffing for “safe suites,” zero-barrier housing for the most marginalized youth so they could work with support staff to overcome issues like poverty, mental illness and substance misuse.
McParland would spend the next three years trying to secure safe suites funding, eventually raising enough money to open a safe suite house for six youth last December. During that same time period, A Way Home Kamloops became a non-profit and registered charity, for which McParland served as executive director.
Despite working a full-time job trying to end youth homelessness, McParland managed to complete a human services diploma from Thompson Rivers University and a master of social work leadership by distance from the University of Calgary.
Her master’s studies included a practicum placement at the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, where she met Charlesworth in 2018.
“She told me, in our first meeting or our second meeting, that she wanted my job, she wanted to be the Representative for Children and Youth,” said Charlesworth. “A number of us agreed that not only was that possible, it was also quite probable because of her promise.”
McParland continued to work with the representative’s office until February, when the office released her final paper centring the voices and solutions of young people who experienced homelessness, From Marginalized to Magnified: Youth Homelessness Solutions from Those With Lived Expertise.
Remembering McParland, Charlesworth says one of her staff brought up Ted Hughes, the former B.C. justice whose 2005 inquiry led to the creation of the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth.
“Ted Hughes was the father of [the representative’s office],” said Charlesworth. “But Katherine McParland was our daughter.”
‘Embodied a sense of belonging’
McParland often shared her story of growing up in foster care and living on her own by 16 through what’s called a Youth Agreement with the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Despite her experience living solo, when McParland aged out of government care on her 19th birthday things began to spiral out of control. Tina Lange, then a Kamloops city councillor, became McParland’s landlord when McParland was in her very early 20s.
“It really enlightened me to the issues of kids aging out of foster care, particularly young women,” said Lange, who in later years would speak publicly with McParland about their initially rocky experience together.
“She had a place of her own, and of course what happened is all the predators moved in. When I met her, she was the Katherine... you and I know that was beautiful, smiling and happy, bouncing around in a lovely dress. Just the picture of health. And within a month her whole life had changed.”
Feeling unmoored after leaving care, McParland struggled with substance use, mental health issues and unhealthy relationships. Eventually Lange said she felt forced to evict McParland, though she would check in on her a couple of times a year.
Like most youth aging out of care, McParland had no trusted adult figures in her life to turn to for support. She wound up spending nearly three years living on the streets of Kamloops before a former child welfare contact helped her get back on her feet.
She kept in contact with Lange, who years later would join A Way Home to support McParland’s efforts. But Lange says it was McParland who helped open her eyes to the struggles of youth in her own city.
"It wasn’t until I got involved with A Way Home that... it registered, homeless youth in my community,” said Lange, who referred to McParland as “my other daughter.”
“It was this huge eyeopener. Katherine did that for the whole community, so that suddenly people in this city realized that youth homelessness was the biggest problem that we had.”
Natika Bock was working to secure housing for Indigenous youth aging out of care for the Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services when she first met McParland, who was trying to house all youth.
Despite having different employers, the two would often work together to connect with young people living on the streets of Kamloops.
“You could tell that she knew the streets so well,” said Bock, now the community services co-ordinator for Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc. “She knew where to find people, gave everybody a big hug. She really embodied a sense of belonging. She was probably the most inclusive person I have ever met.”
McParland gave her all to helping youth marginalized by society come in from the cold. She was constantly working, Bock recalled. Their offices were close to each other, and one day when McParland’s office was undergoing renovations, Bock spotted her working at her desk in the alley while contractors did their work inside.
“When she was developing A Way Home as an organization, to become the [executive director], she just worked her butt off for that,” Bock said. “I feel like her dreams were so much bigger than maybe we could even understand.”
‘Truly a warrior’
Everyone who spoke to The Tyee noted how keen McParland was to centre the voices of the young people with lived experience.
She established the Youth Against Youth Homelessness sub-committee through A Way Home, mentoring the young people involved to tell their own stories and lead the work towards a solution. Despite being just a decade or so older, McParland referred to all the young people she worked with as her “kiddos.”
But she took the enormity of the problem, of the stories that youth told her, onto her own shoulders. That’s a heavy burden to bear, Charlesworth says.
“It’s a reminder to me that we need to make sure that we support folks like Katherine, and there are other amazing advocates like her in this province as well, so that we as allies help carry that load.”
McParland didn’t let service providers or other advocates off the hook, either, advocating all levels of Canadian governments to invest in youth housing.
“[She] was that beautiful combination you see in some advocates of grace and fierceness at the same time,” Charlesworth said.
Her singular focus on the well-being of young people inspired those around her, like Traci Anderson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Kamloops and vice-president of the A Way Home Kamloops board.
“She truly was a warrior. Her caring compassion for youth, it actually has a lasting impact for me in my work,” said Anderson. “When you’re an executive director, you’re not always frontline, hands on, and she just constantly reminded me to be really connected.”
Lange believes the community will continue to support McParland’s vision for ending youth homelessness in Kamloops. But she hopes it will happen through the realization of McParland’s best-known dream: a BC Housing-built apartment building of safe suites for youth experiencing homelessness.
“Maybe, with enough support and drive from this community, we will see Katherine’s house rise,” she said.
Since 2015, I have interviewed McParland eight different times. On every occasion I was struck by how warm, bubbly and compassionate she was in conversation.
Not only for the youth she worked with, but even for me. McParland never forgot my name or who I worked for and she was always happy to take my call.
There’s a professional barrier that reporters must maintain that precludes friendship with their sources, and I kept that up with McParland. But she was truly a joy to talk to, even when what we discussed — the struggles facing young people who have nowhere to call home — could be soul-crushing.
On Friday, the day that would be McParland’s last, I was deleting files on my voice recorder to make space when I came across my last interview with McParland in September. Just hearing her voice brought an instant smile to my face.
I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say I wish it wasn’t the last time I would hear it.