Alberta leading the way in reducing youth homelessness with launch of new plan

With just four years left in the province’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Alberta government has announced its “next step” — a plan designed specifically for homeless youth aged 13 to 24.

The “specialized action plan,” described by the government as the only one of its kind in Canada, aims to reduce youth homelessness across the province and prevent more teens from swapping their beds for shelters or the streets.

“What we’re finding is that a large portion of our homeless are our youth,” said Human Services Minister Heather Klimchuk earlier this week after a tour of Haven’s Way, a Calgary home for young women at-risk of homelessness.

“We need to focus on this population to get them on their way. They’re the future.”

The youth plan, which shifts the province’s response away from emergency services toward prevention, increasing housing and support services, and reunifying families when possible, comes after the Calgary Homeless Foundation released its own plan to end youth homelessness in 2011.

It’s estimated there are at least 65,000 homeless youth across the country, but the scope and prevalence in Alberta is unclear, in part because before 2012, homeless youth were not singled out in many municipal homeless counts, including in Calgary.

In a 2012 Calgary count when 3,576 homeless people were tallied, 446 were independent youth and 198 were children and youth with families. Specific youth numbers from Calgary’s 2014 count are expected in the coming weeks.

The province’s focus on reducing youth homelessness comes after Alberta’s 10-year plan to end homelessness was first announced by then-premier Ed Stelmach in 2007, released the following year, and endorsed by the government in March 2009 with a goal of eradicating homelessness across the province by 2019.

“The Youth Plan represents the next step in the 10-Year Plan and is a targeted response to a specialized population,” states the government’s 52-page plan, officially titled Supporting Healthy and Successful Transitions to Adulthood: A Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness.

A working group facilitated by the government to discuss the specific issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness is a component of the new youth plan.

New programs in 12 communities across the province, including a local project to build relationship skills and improve family functioning, were also announced in conjunction with the government’s youth plan.

Klimchuk said she’s hopeful the document will spur feedback and evolve over time.

“There’s a lot of youth that are homeless and we need to house every one of them, but we’re not there yet. This is a good start,” she said.

Diana Krecsy, president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, welcomed the government’s increased efforts to reduce youth homelessness and said focusing on youth is an important part of the effort.

“These are young people who have their whole life ahead of them,” she said.

Despite the new provincial plan coming years after Calgary’s youth plan was released, Tim Richter, president and CEO at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and former head of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, commended the work the province is doing. He said Alberta is a leader in working to wipe out homelessness.

“In many respects, Alberta is way ahead of the country,” he said. “No one else is doing this yet. Calgary was among the first to really begin to focus on youth homelessness.”

Richter said the province’s youth plan is an important step in the right direction but he’s eager to see what tangible results come from the document in a few years.

“Plans are only as good as the action and funding that follows,” he said.

Klimchuk spoke about the province’s new initiatives after viewing a residential program operated by the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary, and meeting people like Ange Neil, 21, who lived at Haven’s Way for three years.

Amid a strained family dynamic and a need for mental health support, Neil left her mom’s home at 17 and eventually found a safe place at the Calgary shelter.

Neil, who is today pursuing a university education in social work, said she doesn’t know where she would be without the support of Haven’s Way.

“They really set you up for success,” she said.

aklingbeil@calgaryherald.com

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