Two Years of Shelter Diversion: Learnings and Lessons (Webinar recap)

The housing crisis is overwhelming community shelters across Canada. While an increase in beds seems like a logical approach, it fails to keep up with demand. Shelters are now being forced to re-evaluate their approach to housing, especially for shelters serving youth. Minimizing youth interactions with shelters can also limit the likelihood that homelessness becomes a part of their identity. 

Safe alternatives to shelters, also known as Shelter Diversion, can stabilize housing for youth. RAFT and its partner programs have been able to divert youth from accessing shelters on a continual basis. Shelter diversion is now being applied by community shelters across Canada.

Michael Lethby, executive director of Niagara Resource Service for Youth (RAFT) and Dr. Katrina Milaney, associate professor at the University of Calgary to discuss how to approach and implement Shelter Diversion in communities across Canada. The conversation hosted by Making the Shift  was framed around the report “Two Years of Shelter Diversion: Learnings and Lessons.” 


Both Mr. Lethby and Dr. Milaney emphasized the goal of Shelter Diversion is not to deny shelter to those who need it. Instead, it involves working with youth and employing a strengths-based approach to identify alternatives to a shelter stay. Often, the alternatives are related to Family and Natural Supports.

“The key here is not saying ‘no’ to shelter. It’s about saying, ‘what else?’”

– Michael Lethby

What is the Centralized Shelter Diversion Program, and what was the impact?

In April 2019, RAFT began operating a Centralized Shelter Diversion program. The framework was based on the successful shelter diversion strategy of Argus Residence for Young People (“Argus House”) in Cambridge. The goal of the program was to “divert people from shelter to safe and appropriate alternative housing.”

In the first six months of the Centralized Shelter Diversion program, RAFT diverted 40% of youth seeking access to its shelter. By August 2020, the organization expanded across the Niagara region by partnering with Southridge Community Church’s Adult Shelter and Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Niagara’s Nightlight Youth Service.

By April 2021, RAFT reported they were able to divert 17% of those who sought access to shelters. Additionally, the report indicated 74% of youth who were successfully diverted from shelters during their first interaction did not return on a later date. 

The 17% diversion rate mirrors that of the shelter diversion program from Argus House in Cambridge. This showed that the model can be adapted to the needs of different communities.

Michael Lethby shared his learnings and lessons from the Centralized Shelter Diversion program:

  1. Shelter Diversion is an effective prevention program that provides cumulative benefit the longer it is operating.  In the short term, the diversion of youth from shelters allowed staff to focus their resources on those with fewer options to affordable housing. In the long term, this will limit the number of individuals who experience chronic homelessness and an unintentional development of  identity around homelessness.
  2. Shelter Diversion’s success supports using Homeless Identity theory for the development of effective homelessness programs. As identified in literature, repeated interactions with homeless services can lead to the development of a “homeless identity”. Once the identity is developed, chronic and episodic homeless is more likely. Shelter Diversion can limit the likelihood of developing a “homeless identity”. 
  3. Shelter Diversion’s success rate can be increased by reducing the number of people repeatedly accessing shelter and increasing personal agency. While Shelter Diversion is an effective standalone program, it can be strengthened with prevention and post-shelter supports. These supports work to increase the personal agency of those seeking housing, and promotes the likelihood of being housed stably.
  4. Assessments used in homeless services should be strengths-based and respectful. The first meeting of the program involves a strengths-based assessment and encourages individuals to reflect on the circumstances in which they recently experienced successful housing.
  5. Shelter Diversion is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. RAFT reports their Shelter Diversion program only took a few months to implement. Ongoing costs are primarily the wages and benefits of full-time Shelter Diversion workers. 
  6. Shelter Diversion is best implemented by a centralized team. Shelter Diversion workers provide specialized supports. They should not be assigned additional responsibilities. Instead, they can work with staff to effectively recognize the appropriate supports for those seeking shelter.
  7. Shelter Diversion is a cost-effective homelessness prevention service. In one year, a fully staffed Shelter Diversion program will cost less than operating a medium size shelter. While preventing homelessness, this program enables efficient reallocation of funding.
  8. Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Shelter Diversion Study. Given the success of the Centralized Shelter Diversion program, Dr. Katrina Milaney is conducting an ethnographic study to assess the effectiveness of shelter diversion programs in cities across Canada and the factors needed to promote program fidelity and adaptability. She will also develop practical tools for organizations looking to adopt Shelter Diversion in their communities.

Learn more: Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Shelter Diversion Study