Blog: Leveraging Our International Network of Allies for Greater Impact at Home

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There’s no doubt about it – when it comes to shifting to preventing youth homelessness in Canada, there is significant work to be done. So why bother engaging with people from around the world when we haven’t gotten things sorted in our own backyard? When we take a step back to understand the nature of transformative social innovation, the importance of growing an international network of peers and allies becomes clear. From the beginnings of the work by Making the Shift Directors Dr. Stephen Gaetz and Melanie Redman to define what youth homelessness prevention means in Canada, to the development and uptake of program models, to the ability to inform policy and systems/structural change, international collaboration has and continues to be a vital component throughout.

In 2021, we were thrilled to have the collective body of work of Making the Shift, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness designated as a Geneva UN Charter Centre of Excellence, known as the “Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University” (TCE). The TCE will serve as our platform for amplifying our bi-directional knowledge mobilization between efforts here in Canada, and what is happening internationally. 

International knowledge exchange and mobilization as a key driver of youth homelessness social innovation

International examples of youth homelessness interventions have been critical in shaping our collective research agenda and Demonstration projects since its beginnings. MtS Scientific Director Dr. Stephen Gaetz recalls observing youth homelessness programs in London, UK in 2005: 

“Their philosophy around the work was totally different from anything I’d seen in Canada. The way they were thinking about well-being as important… I’d never heard anything like it. For me, the biggest paradigm-shifting moments [in our collective work] have come through international engagement where you engage people and communities and governments doing and thinking very differently.”

Over the last two decades our work in Canada has drawn on examples of school-based interventions in Australia with The Upstream Project, as well as family reunification with Youth Reconnect. We have also been impacted by program models such as Nightstop in the UK providing alternative emergency accommodations, and the legislative framework Duty to Assist in Wales. We have and continue to grow because of the learnings of those who have charted different paths and challenged the narratives around youth homelessness to provide better care and generate better outcomes with and for young people. 

There is a bidirectional flow of knowledge, which Stephen characterizes as “magic”. Canada has exported concepts around youth homelessness prevention that have taken off in ways we could not have anticipated. Melanie Redman points to two major developments where we have had international influence: Collective Impact for prevention and a rights lens on youth homelessness. 

Melanie came across John Kania and Mark Kramer’s first article on Collective Impact while working at Eva’s Initiatives in Toronto before A Way Home Canada was developed: 

“Looking at my new work portfolio and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness and everything that Steve and the team were publishing around how to shift our thinking and activity toward prevention, I understood that service providers cannot do that themselves. It was an “ah-ha” moment that Collective Impact could be a frame… You have to act differently in every way, not just shifting to prevention, but you have to organize yourselves differently.”

This model has become the foundation for numerous international A Way Home spin-off coalitions in the United States (which launched six months after A Way Home Canada), A Way Home Europe (including Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Denmark and 13 local coalitions in the Flanders region of Belgium), as well as A Way Home Australia. While they operate independently, the shared commitment to shifting to prevention and using a Collective Impact frame is at the core of all of these coalitions.

Foregrounding youth homelessness as a rights issue in Canada and internationally happened very early on. During an international work trip to London, England in 2015 before the launch of A Way Home Canada, Melanie and Stephen met Leilani Farha, who at the time was the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. Leilani had published a guide with her organization Canada Without Poverty to ground poverty reduction strategies within international rights, covenants, tools and mechanisms. Melanie suggested to Leilani, “wouldn’t it be great if we did that on the issue of youth homelessness? And we went to Maytree Foundation and Laidlaw Foundation and fundraised and that’s how we developed the Youth Rights! Right Now! Guide.” The guide was quickly taken up by FEANTSA, a major European homelessness research policy advocacy organization, and with the help of Baker McKenzie was adapted into 8 languages. “They used it as a huge rallying cry and it formed the basis of one of their next study sessions on housing as a right.” Six years after the guide was published, discussions about the right to housing have become more widespread in Canada, and continues to be a point of discussion and learning in international exchange. 

International influence on innovative practice models

Housing First for Youth is another notable example of a Canadian approach flourishing in numerous European countries. After giving a presentation on HF4Y for the Youth Study Session hosted by FEANTSA (The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless) in 2015, Stephen Gaetz and Melanie Redman were invited back to be part of the leadership team to coordinate and speak at a week-long FEANTSA Youth study session focusing specifically on the HF4Y model for practitioners in Europe, at which representatives from over 20 EU countries attended.

Stephen described the ripple effect over the last five years of that week where participants took the idea of HF4Y back to Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and elsewhere: “In all of those places they kind of took the idea, they implemented it with fidelity, but they also adapted it to local contexts.” We continue to learn of new places that are taking up the HF4Y model in their local approaches to youth homelessness!

The widespread interest and capacity to take up HF4Y in European countries has resulted in an international community of practice on HF4Y led by the Housing First Europe Hub. Heidi Walter, the Training and Implementation Manager at A Way Home Canada has been actively engaged in this community of practice from its inception and has been invited to support the development of a week-long Study Session on the HF4Y program model and philosophy. Her experience showcases the transformative potential of encountering others in the field who are running with similar ideas in different contexts, and the challenges and rewards of coming back together to compare notes and further the vision of ending youth homelessness: 

“I had a lot of hard moments and some incredible learnings and walls that had been broken down that I wasn’t aware of that needed to come down for me.”

Embracing the emergence and organic nature of change and social innovation is not without its challenges. When you develop an idea and share it with the world, it is easy to latch onto one way as the “right way” of doing something. But ideas plant seeds grow and go in directions we can’t always control, especially when we’re separated by nations, languages, cultures, and our unique experiences and worldviews. In those moments of encountering difference, tensions, or resistance in ways of doing HF4Y, Heidi has brought her work into perspective of our collective goals: 

“What are we trying to achieve and what are we trying to move? Everybody wants to end youth homelessness and we need to have a similar looking vehicle, but it doesn’t have to be exact… We found common ground to be able to expand our language and to be able to start to feel comfortable to say that we actually can speak to any audience that has a desire to focus on ending youth homelessness. That’s actually all we need from people and we’ll figure out the way to get there.”

For Heidi, encounters with people from other contexts implementing HF4Y has had a profound personal impact on how she views local adaptation of the model. “I don’t know if ever in my career I felt like that before in 22 years. It was really pivotal in the way that I will move forward every day to be cognizant about what we mean when we say “it’s going to look different for each community”… It was taking into consideration everybody’s needs and what drives your community.” Melanie also sees the potential for personal growth and shifts in worldview that can happen with international engagement: “If everyone had access to going places and experiencing the world differently meeting different people we wouldn’t have all the problems we have. It’s so expansive.”

Harnessing collective potential for social innovation and impact

Having a good idea is not enough to enact lasting, transformational change. Social Innovation is a long and emergent process that we can’t always predict or control. The momentum for social innovation and change can be threatened by numerous factors, such as a lack of leadership buy-in and/or political will. A good and effective program can stay close to the ground for a very long time or lose funding and close down without ever being adopted and scaled to reach more people in different contexts. There is limited potential to allow for policy and practice experimentation within Canada’s borders. That’s where international collaboration comes in. Stephen notes, “mutual learning is really key and I think it makes us all move faster to innovation and solutions.”

When we reach further afield, our capacity for experimentation and evidence-building vastly increases. No longer are we bound to the political and economic landscape within Canada, but we can look to contexts that are primed and ready to take up ideas in ways we are not here at home. Likewise, we can take inspiration from good ideas and identify how it may be adapted to our local contexts. Where we get stuck, others might find a path forward. Where we struggle to convince policymakers and funders, we can point to our network of collaborators doing similar work and the factors that enable their success. Rather than hold us back, our international collaboration drives us forward, building the case for prevention and a focus on youth. 

The designation of the collective body of work of Making the Shift, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness as a Geneva UN Charter Centre of Excellence presents the opportunity to more intentionally nurture these connections. The Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University has big plans to harness the potential of this work for positive transformational change at home in Canada and abroad. It’s more important than ever that we pay attention to these relationships and connections and the value they can bring to us individually and as a collective.

“It’s been this bidirectional flow of learning and we consider all of these things – the Toronto Centre of Excellence, A Way Home, Making the Shift – they’re all just platforms for creating new knowledge and exchanging knowledge and it’s pretty amazing.” – Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada