Best practice literature indicates that Housing First is the preferred housing model for people who require intensive supports and are experiencing chronic homelessness. Housing First has gained wide acceptance and has been identified as “best practice” by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Cities across Canada and the U.S. are in the process of transitioning to a Housing First model, which has serious implications on the livelihood of other housing models, such as shelters and transitional housing. While this shift is grounded in research that has clearly demonstrated the benefits of Housing First, there is very little literature about the effectiveness of Housing First models with youth populations. As we are increasingly developing youth focused homelessness plans, there is a need to consider the benefits and challenges of Housing First when applied to youth. I have some thoughts on the issue that I figured I would share. So if you are interested in housing and homelessness, read on! Need a brush-up on Housing First principles, values, and key elements first? Click here for a primer.
There are elements of the Housing First model that make it appealing as an option for youth. One key benefit of the Housing First model for youth is that it takes into consideration how a history of entering and existing psychiatric/treatment facilities may leave some youth mistrustful of the mental health system. For youth that are unwilling to comply with rules or participate in treatment programs at the outset of a program, the Housing First model does not revoke the support being offered. Rather, the intent is to provide housing stability with the goal of allowing youth the opportunity to accept support at their own pace. This makes the model particularly valuable for youth who have struggled in transitional housing or been in and out of housing treatment facilities (primarily due to mental health and addictions issues). Housing stability also provides space for youth to remove themselves from negative influences and pressures. One study that explored treatment preferences for homeless youth in London, ON. found that Housing First was the preferred model for these very reasons. Without the stability of housing, the youth were more likely to be influenced by environmental and psycho-social stresses, such as stress associated with poor weather conditions, noise in cramped housing facilities, lack of safe places to sleep (especially in cities), as well as peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Participants also indicated that a lack of permanent housing can worsen mental health issues, or cause one to turn/return to substance use as a way to cope with the stress of the unknown.
I can also anticipate some challenges associated with the Housing First model when it is applied to a youth population. For example, people may assume that youth, like adults, have the experience and household skills for independent living. Many homeless youth have not yet developed these skills, which could lead to feelings of insecurity and nervousness about living without structured adult supervision. Adolescence and young adulthood is also a time when peers play an important role. Tight-knit communities are often formed in transitional housing and the study about youth treatment preferences, described above, found that some youth chose not to pursue Housing First out of fear of disconnecting from their peer group and becoming isolated. Furthermore, while choice and control about personal goals is reduced in transitional housing models, some youth prefer to live with other youth who are going through the same experience as them. Youth with mental health and addictions issues may therefore become overwhelmed by the amount of independence that Housing First provides.
It is also important to consider how the Housing First model matches youth development. Transitional housing models typically offer structure, supervision, support, life skills, and sometimes education and training. Many youth, and in particular younger youth, find this appealing. Youth in Kingston, for example, identified the need for structure and support in housing options, with capable support staff who have the skills and experience to support them in stabilizing their lives . Some youth expressed that they liked having goals they were expected to meet. The fact that youth find some of the qualities of transitional housing appealing is not surprising to me. High expectations, structured use of time, opportunities for engagement, healthy and caring relationships, supportive mentors and role models, and safety are valuable assets that environments need to offer youth to support wellbeing and their transition to independence.
These challenges do not mean that Housing First is not a desirable model for youth. I believe these challenges merely highlight that certain forms of housing within the Housing First model are more ideal for youth than others, certain elements of Housing First may need to be fore grounded when working with youth as opposed to adults, and that Housing First may need to be one of many housing options for youth. For example, while scattered site forms of Housing First are primarily encouraged for adult populations, congregate housing or permanent supportive housing where there are greater opportunities to build a sense of community and receive supports in-house may be ideal for youth transitioning to independence. The Intensive Case Management (ICM) or Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) component of Housing First will also need to be tailored to ensure youth developmental assets are promoted. Lastly, youth need housing options that will follow them along their journey to independence. Just as youth are diverse in terms of age-range, life experience, and opportunity for skill development, so too must be the housing options available to them.
The application of Housing First to youth populations is a relatively new area of discussion. If you have thoughts of your own that you want to share, please reach out! I would love to chat with you.
 Forchuk, C., Richardson, J., Laverty, K., Bryant, M., Rudnick, A., Csiernik, R., & Kelly, C. (2013). Housing First, Treatment First, or Both Together. Implications for Policy and Practice, 95.
 Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness in Kingston. Kingston’s Youth Out Loud! Community Forum.
 Padgett, D. K., Gulcur, L., & Tsemberis, S. (2006). Housing first services for people who are homeless with co-occurring serious mental illness and substance abuse. Research on Social Work Practice, 16(1), 74-83.