Reducing youth homelessness through Collective Impact

September 18, 2019

“We thought that we were at the start of the Collective Impact process, but when we talked to Innoweave they found we were further along and suggested we apply for a larger grant. They supported us to do coaching for evaluation because that was going to be key,” explained Bhavana Varma, executive director of the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFLA).

At the time, the KFLA was already leading a Collective Impact project on youth homelessness when they started working with Innoweave, but most of the coordination was being done by the executive director and staff off the sides of their desks. The ability to focus on collective impact strengthened the project’s backbone coordination and enabled them to take advantage of some of the spontaneous opportunities that came out of the collaboration.

“With collective impact, sometimes things happen that you need to take advantage of,” said Bhavana Varma.

Working with the Innoweave coach was a painful process of making the project goals clear and measurable, which took shifting into new ways of thinking. “We started with the idealistic thought ‘we want fewer youth in the shelters’ but then we realized that we actually want more youth to trust our programs and come in and stop couch-surfing,” Varma reflected.

This was a fundamental change, if the goal wasn’t to reduce the number of youth in shelters, they needed a new way to realistically measure the success of their work. It was a heavy lift to figure out what was measurable, and which indicators could realistically be attributed to the Collective Impact project.

Along the way the KFLA streamlined the structures that governed the project. They reorganized a whole set of committees and structures into one big steering committee that meets once a month and includes representation from homeless youth.

Every part of the process starts with consulting youth and service providers about the solutions they want and then finding a way to make it happen.

Consulting youth raised many new opportunities. They asked for an awareness campaign, putting stories about homelessness in schools and buses so that youth could find out where to go. They told the collective impact project that they needed to educate teachers, because schools and teachers were their first point of contact, and school staff didn’t know what to do. These were completely new projects.

The work is changing the face of youth homelessness. Six years ago, a Point-in-Time count found that 60% of people on the streets in Kingston were youth. In 2016, the same study found it was down to 17%. In 2017, none of the people homeless on the street were youth.