Continued Growth and Success
Choices for Youth (CFY) has been operating a pilot project – Upstream NL (UNL) – since early 2021. A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and Raising the Roof partnered on The Upstream Project with the goal of identifying young people who need supports at an earlier age by connecting with them through the school system. CFY was one of two organizations in Canada chosen to pilot this project.
School-aged children often have a difficult time accessing the services they need to achieve better outcomes. UNL engages with students at school, building relationships with them and their families and providing the services they need to increase their engagement in the classroom. The UNL team conducts needs assessments for all students at a certain grade level and the data from those needs assessments is sent to York University, which compiles a list of students who may need support based on identified risk factors. The program also receives referrals from guidance counsellors and administrators. UNL then meets with these students in school and offers them supports and services.
“We need spaces for young people to be able to regulate, and not everybody can do that in a classroom setting. If kids are hungry, if they haven’t had a hug in a year, if they need somewhere to go cry, if they need somewhere to come curse and swear and flip out for five minutes, we are that safe space.”
Students accessing UNL services first identify their goals, the areas where they require assistance, and the supports they need to move forward and be successful in their day-to-day lives and in the future. UNL takes a Family and Natural Supports (FNS) approach to helping these students, supporting them by supporting their families. The UNL team connects with the parents and guardians of their students to determine what the program can do to help them. By supporting their families, UNL hopes to take the extra stress factors out of their students’ lives so that when they attend school, they can focus on their education. Although UNL is currently focused on junior high students, by connecting with the whole family, the program’s reach can extend to other young people within that family.
Connecting with UNL allows parents and guardians to build a relationship with actors within the school system but on a different level than they would with teachers or administrators. Since the UNL team comes from outside of the school system, they can provide different perspectives on the challenges that families are facing and can bridge the gap between families and teachers. Parents and guardians and teachers and administrators all want the same thing – better outcomes for the children. By facilitating communication between these different parties, UNL is getting everyone on the same page to best support young people.
“Obviously academics are important, but our focus is more on the wholistic young person. We want youth to be connected to their school community. We take some of the extra stuff going on in their lives out of the classroom so they can really focus on their learning when they are there.”
UNL gained tremendous momentum last fiscal year. The program is operating in two junior high schools in St. John’s and now employs a coordinator, a team lead, and three full-time frontline workers who have their own office space in the schools, offering availability throughout the week. Success looks different for every student who engages with UNL programming – some students attend class more frequently while others are able to focus better in the classroom because of the supports they and their families are now receiving. Even simply providing a safe space for students to come when they feel overwhelmed or frustrated is a great benefit, to say nothing of the supportive counselling opportunities that come from those interactions.
UNL also completed ASIST training with five staff from one of their schools last year. The staff members were very appreciative of this opportunity as now they are better equipped to help students with mental health needs. Without UNL, they would not have had access to these resources.
All of the great work being done by UNL is ultimately supporting research into how we can better prevent youth homelessness at an earlier stage in peoples' lives. With the school system still recovering from COVID, and students still adjusting to their new normal, the supports provided by programs like UNL are needed now more than ever.
“Why is it that there are so many homeless youth? How can we work upstream and put supports in place earlier, so that they don’t become homeless? We are building a bridge to stop all the young people from flowing downstream and trying to get people connected to services at a younger age. Every young person is registered in a school, so why not start there?”