Inside the Plan to Reduce Youth Homelessness in Peterborough

AWHP staff members and youth engagement facilitators (l-r): Crystal Hebert (YEF), Jason Tobin (YEF), Ashleigh Swerdfeger (YEF), Maddie Porter (AWHP project manager), Mandy Woodley (YEF), Melissa Hunt (AWHP project assistant).

As Peterborough’s emergency shelters continue to respond to the city’s housing and homelessness crisis, a preventative strategy to reduce youth homelessness is being developed by A Way Home Peterborough (AWHP). The group’s goal is to reduce youth homelessness in Peterborough by 25% by 2021, and they’ve mapped out a wide-ranging plan to achieve it.

Maddie Porter, project manager for AWHP, says one essential component of the plan is shelter diversion, which involves supporting at-risk youth before they enter the shelter system in the first place. “The shelter does really amazing, life-saving work, and it is an essential part of our community,” she says, “but it is meant to be an emergency and temporary response, not a solution.”

Porter says life in shelters can be destabilizing. “It’s a lot more difficult to reconnect a young person with their family once they’ve entered the shelter,” she says.

As an alternative to shelters, AWHP is designing a host home program that will match young people without a place to stay with community members who have extra space in their homes. Porter says that host homes are more stable than shelters, and that by keeping youth in their communities, connected to their families and their schools, it will increase their chances of staying out of homelessness.

One of the unique aspects of the host home program is that it calls on community members to participate. “It really is a community-based solution,” Porter says. “It asks the community to share resources with young people who don’t have as many resources.”

In May, AWHP received almost $40,000 from United Way Peterborough to design their host home program. The funding will support consultations with youth, potential hosts, and other community partners, preparing AWHP to launch the initiative in 2019.

Part of the consultation process will involve getting more input from youth themselves, especially rural, Indigenous, and queer youth, who disproportionately experience homelessness.

“It’s really important for us that our work is co-led by youth that have expertise of homelessness,” Porter says. To get that expertise, AWHP has hired four youth who will “amplify and engage the voices of other youth that are experiencing homelessness.”

Crystal Hebert is one of AWHP’s youth engagement facilitators. “I grew at the YES shelter,” she says, “so youth homelessness is near and dear to my heart and I do everything I can to have a positive impact on those who are marginalized by poverty.”

Hebert tells youth who are experiencing homelessness right now that there is a way out. “It doesn’t last forever,” she says. “It feels like forever, but it’s not. It’s not the end of your story.”

The host home program is AWHP’s primary initiative right now, but it isn’t the only work the organization is doing. “The causes of youth homelessness are really complex,” Porter says. “So to move the dial on youth homelessness we need to engage the child welfare system, the criminal justice system, the school system, all the systems that might not normally think that they are influenced by or could have an impact on youth homelessness.

“So that is what A Way Home Peterborough is doing, bringing those partners to the table with youth who have lived experience to come up with a collaborative solution.”

Right now, the emergency homeless shelters in Peterborough are responding to a crisis. The YES Shelter for Youth and Families is regularly over capacity, and other shelters in the city are also reporting extremely high demand. By focussing on prevention and early intervention, A Way Home Peterborough is hoping to ease that pressure, and help youth at risk of homelessness access and maintain safe and stable housing.

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Will Pearson

Will Pearson

Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough, Ontario. He has written for a variety of local and national publications, and he is the host of the Peterborough Currents podcast.