Back and forth and back and forth and back again. That’s the rhythm of life for so many young people as they navigate the many overlapping systems set up to support them. Back and forth across town. Back and forth across a region. Back and forth to St. John’s. Each time having to re-tell what can often be a very difficult personal story. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Over the last few years, Choices for Youth (CFY) has been a part of a movement that’s happening all over the world towards integrated service delivery – or ISD – for youth. The term might be a mouthful, but it is exactly what it sounds like: integrating the many different kinds of services a young person might need, and delivering them together at one site or location.
What does ISD look like? Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, CFY’s own site on Carter’s Hill Place in downtown St. John’s is an example. Under one roof, young people can get a hot meal, pick up some vital personal care supplies, see a doctor, get help with employment, connect with housing programs, use the internet, or just have a safe, supportive conversation. There are now sites like this all over Canada and all over the world. The details vary – some have kitchens and hangout space, others work more like clinics – but all of them share a commitment to creating a space that young people feel ownership over, feel comfortable in, and can access without barriers.
If you were to walk through the doors at our site on Carter’s Hill Place, you’d find young people there from all over Newfoundland and Labrador. As it stands now, support services for youth, especially for youth facing really big barriers from things like addictions and homelessness, are concentrated in St. John’s. Young people arrive in many different ways, and from many different places. While we know that leaving home is sometimes the best option, many of the young people we support would be much better off if they were able to be closer to their personal support networks and home communities.
As an organization, CFY is making a shift towards crises and homelessness prevention, and we know that prevention becomes almost impossible when young people are so often forced to uproot and potentially isolate themselves. That’s what kicked off more than a year of deep consultation with young people and service providers all over Newfoundland and Labrador. During that process, the idea of creating ISD hubs elsewhere in the province came up over and over and over again. There are great services for youth out there, and thanks to new investments they’re getting stronger all the time. What there isn’t, for the most part, is the infrastructure to link all those services together to really meet young people where they are. We hope that an emerging network of partners can work with us to change that.
For almost a year now, CFY has been developing a model for how ISD hubs for youth could work around the province. We’ve shared our ideas with experts in the field, wrote and re-wrote a design with our team here in St. John’s, and for the last few months we’ve been convening planning teams in communities all over the province to take that model and adapt it for their community. In Labrador West, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Stephenville, Corner Brook, Grand Falls-Windsor, Gander, Clarenville, and Marystown, local service providers and government staff are working to find ways to fit all these pieces together.
So, what would these youth hubs look like? Skipping past the pages of flow charts and budget spreadsheets, we see some key elements emerge. The sites would encompass a small but mighty core team of youth outreach workers and support staff, working alongside community partner to provide primary care (doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners), mental health care, addictions care, employment supports, housing supports, family supports, cultural supports, and more. We see a place where a young person can walk through the door to grab a bite to eat, sit down with a counsellor, and get connected with a new place to live – all without the hundreds of dollars in taxi fares, countless phone calls, lonely bus rides, and potentially hours on foot that would often otherwise be required.
More broadly, we see a place where young people facing some of life’s toughest challenges have a place where they can be empowered to live the lives they want. Where they always feel safe and welcome, even when they’re in crisis. Where they can connect with a network of similar sites across the province that can welcome them if they do move to a new community.
There is still a great deal of work to do before these plans turn into proposals, and even more work to do if those proposals are approved. What we know, though, is that now is the time. There is a major shift going on in all the systems that support youth in this province – mental health, addictions, child welfare, education, and housing systems and policies are all being refreshed and re-tooled. Right now, all of the key players are moving in the same direction, and we have an opportunity to create large-scale positive impact together.
Dozens of agencies. Eight communities. Countless hours of work. If we can get this done, and done right, this province will have the best, most flexible support system for youth in this country – and young people deserve nothing less.
Joshua Smee is the Provincial Expansion Coordinator at Choices for Youth.