The Youth Supported Independent Living Program

Helping at-risk youth with mental illness to succeed

Eric Sault

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 34-36

At the Canadian Mental Health Association's Simon Fraser Branch (CMHA-SF), we run several programs to provide affordable housing and support for people with mental illnesses. The Youth Supported Independent Living (YSIL) program was created in the Fraser North area in 2000 as a pilot project. It has since become one of our regular programs. Making the transition from youth to adulthood can be challenging at the best of times. Teens facing adversities such as mental illness and disruptive home lives, however, are at far greater risk. By providing housing and support to young people facing mental illness, we help them make the transition to adulthood more manageable.

Kids are not able to live at home for a variety of reasons. There may be abuse, addiction and/or a parent with mental illness who is unable to care for the child. Tensions may involve issues between the youth and their siblings and it may be better for the rest of the children/family if the youth moves out. Some of the youth referred to YSIL have been in foster care and the foster placement has ended. These situations can be extremely stressful for these young people and their families.

When youth begin to show signs of mental illness, this may increase family tensions to the point where it is no longer possible for the youth to remain at home. Or, the relationship between the parent(s) and the youth may be negatively affecting the mental health of the youth. The combination of having an emerging mental illness and unstable housing puts youth at risk of becoming street involved, getting into drugs, drinking and dropping out of school.1

How YSIL works

Our YSIL program provides young people between the ages of 16 and 21 with rental subsidies for affordable accommodation - usually a one-bedroom apartment. These apartments are in traditional rental housing.

Since most youth who enter this program have never lived on their own, we provide a youth worker to help them learn life skills important for successful, independent living. These include skills such as paying rent and bills, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, balancing work and leisure, and developing support systems in the community.

The YSIL workers assist the youth in finding accommodation. It can be a challenge for youth, because not many landlords want to rent to people under the age of 19. The YSIL worker usually explains to the landlord that our program is subsidizing the youth's rent and supporting them to live independently while they go to school. Landlords usually want people who are quiet, clean and pay their rent on time. Since the rent is guaranteed, landlords don't need to worry about the youth not paying the rent.

Before a young person is accepted into the program, an occupational and skill assessment is done by Fraser Health's occupational therapist (OT) to determine if the youth is ready to live independently with support. This assessment highlights the young person's strengths, as well as the areas needing attention.

Then the youth meets with the YSIL worker and a mental health clinician to work out an individualized service plan (ISP). The ISP will map out goals and other specifics in order of importance. The youth can set personal goals such as completing high school and obtaining future employment. And they can be connected with a variety of professional services that will help them achieve their goals.

The actual move-in date depends on how ready the youth is. We have a training apartment which we can use to teach youth how to cook, clean and get comfortable with living on their own. They can stay there for a few nights, checking in with the YSIL worker, to see what it feels like to live on their own. Some youth have lived on their own before or are identified through the OT assessment as having the skills to live independently without the use of the training apartment. Once the youth has started meeting with the YSIL worker, they can begin looking for an apartment right away.

Respectful relationships lead to success

The success of this program depends on mutual respect and trust between the worker and the client. Many of the youth we work with have been let down by people during their young lives. Learning to trust someone new is not always an easy task for them.

The workers work one-on-one with clients - usually for three to five hours, once or twice per week. The worker may spend more time with them initially to help them secure housing and get their place set up. The workers must be sensitive to the individuals' needs and issues. They must find common ground and meet the youth where they're at. They must be patient, caring and non-judgmental, gradually building a foundation of trust.

With trust, it is then possible to establish a meaningful and productive relationship between the worker and the client. This unique professional relationship - sometimes developed over the course of several years - can be a very rewarding experience for both the youth and the support worker.

Since its inception, our YSIL program has helped over 25 youth. I have seen several youth in the YSIL program go on to graduate from high school and/or college, obtain employment, enter positive, long-term relationships and even graduate from mental health services completely. The support offered by the YSIL program gives youth with mental illness a chance for success. It provides stability during a time of great change and uncertainty, and gives them the tools needed to move forward in their lives. Most importantly, it can give them hope.

YSIL client: Alex K.'s story

For my friends, reaching age 19 meant clubbing, parties and looking at universities. To me reaching age 19 meant losing all the supports that the system had provided and I had relied on since I was 14: my home, my childcare worker and my amazing Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) support team.

My introduction to the Youth Supported Independent Living Program (YSIL) began at age 16. I was in total denial that eventually I would turn 19 and when that day came, I would have to live on my own. It just seemed too scary. My therapist referred me to the YSIL program and everything about it seemed challenging: the disability pension, finding an apartment, living alone and budgeting. But what was most frightening, was accepting this was inevitable and one way or another I was going to have to deal with it. I decided to meet with the YSIL worker, even though I was still convinced that this was not for me. I was caught on the word "disability" mainly because I hated the idea of being labeled. However, while I did not want to leave the security of care provided by the system, I did enjoy the possibility of being able to choose buttercup yellow walls with sky blue trim in a place of my own.

Over the next 2 years, I meant with my YSIL worker once a week, and the idea of having my own apartment brought on feelings of both fear and excitement. But now I no longer felt like on that dreaded day when I turned 19, that I would be "dropped off a cliff" and left to fend for myself. I began to see YSIL more as a stepping stone between my current support systems and total independence. A program where I was learning budgeting, cooking and identifying and solving problems that arise from when someone lives on their own for the first time - everything from safety to dealing with loneliness.

The realization that they believed I was capable of living alone, also helped me believe I could do it too. I trusted them. I was getting the support I needed to becoming independent! Realizing there was this supportive middle ground was key to me accepting the YSIL program and succeeding. As soon as I realized this and that my YSIL worker would be there for the long run, I was ready to take the plunge! Over coffee, we worked on the dreaded budget forms, the shopping list which was always followed by the what-can-I-afford list, and the search for "the" apartment. I finally found the perfect home, took a deep breath and moved out on my own at 18 years old. I channeled the empty scary feeling into unpacking and decorating, the fear soon turned to housework. I continued to meet with my YSIL worker, working on issues like paying bills, advocating for myself with the MHR [Ministry of Human Resources, known today as MEIA] and most important, cooking edible food without setting the fire alarm off.

Over the past five years I feel like I have successfully crossed over to adulthood. September will be my last month is YSIL and I'm excited to be starting a new chapter in my life by returning to Douglas College to get my diploma in child and youth counselling. Ultimately I was the one who created the success in my life, but I thank the YSIL program, and its dedicated workers Dan, Lindsay and Paige, for the continual support, guidance, laughter and companionship throughout my journey.

Reprinted with permission of the author and Canadian Mental Health Association Simon Fraser Branch. Original appeared in Peace of Mind Newsletter September 2005, Issue 2.

 
About the author

Eric is Housing Manager and a Youth Supported Independent Living worker for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Simon Fraser Branch.

Footnote:
  1. BC Stats. (2002). Evaluation of the Youth Supported Independent Living Program. Prepared for the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

 

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