Helping vulnerable youth navigate 'the rocky road' to adulthood
Reprinted from "Young People: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 11 (2), pp. 28-30
The transition from youth to adulthood can be long and challenging. How young people fare as they transition has long-lasting and significant repercussions. A large percentage of youth is able to rely on family for financial assistance, a place to live and support well into adulthood. They can take comfort in knowing they have a social safety net in place.
Moving into adulthood is especially challenging for vulnerable youth in our society—those experiencing mental health and substance use challenges, with limited or no connection to family and natural supports, and finding themselves on the margins of society. These youth often rely on the government system to meet their needs. In BC, for youth under 19, the majority of system supports fall under the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). These supports include foster care, child and youth mental health, youth agreements (a program that provides financial and other supports for high-risk youth ages 16 to 19) and youth justice services.
The landscape, however, changes dramatically when these youth turn 19, the “age of majority” or legal adulthood. They are no longer able to access the MCFD supports they’ve relied on. In the case of mental health services, for example, the responsibility for service delivery shifts from MCFD to adult services through the health authorities, which have a different set of services and criteria for access.
The BC Representative for Children and Youth highlighted—in reports Still Waiting (2013) and Paige’s Story (2015)—that youth forced to rely on a fragmented social safety net, or at worst set adrift on their own, are more likely to end up homeless or in precarious housing, face substance use and mental health issues, end up in jail, have fragile social support networks and not finish school.
Bringing community together to address an identified need
In summer 2011, a convening grant from the Community Action Initiative (CAI)1 enabled the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kelowna Branch (CMHA Kelowna) to bring together young people and professionals from over 15 community and government organizations. The young people comprised those over 19 who had aged out of the youth system and others about to age out within the next year. At the heart of this process was identifying the needs of young people who are ignored, forgotten or left to fend for themselves as they age out of youth systems of care.
The youth involved said they were frustrated with losing the supports they had grown up with. They wanted someone who could stay involved with them regardless of their age. They also spoke about the challenges of finding and accessing the resources available to them as adults. The adult system of care they were forced to navigate was completely different than what they were used to; it has its own rules and culture.
Professionals spoke about the disconnect between youth and adult service delivery systems, saying there is a need for continuity in services. Many chose to continue working with young people past age 19, even though this was not part of their service mandate, and they couldn’t provide the level of service they were accustomed to.
A proposal that grew out of the convening process led to a CAI innovation grant to develop the Connected by 25 (CB25) project. A pilot project designed to meet the needs of 16- to 24-year-olds deemed vulnerable in their transitions to adulthood was formally launched in January 2012. The CB25 pilot project was a partnership between CMHA Kelowna, The Bridge Youth and Family Services, Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), Interior Health Authority (IHA), BC Housing and the University of British Columbia (UBC Okanagan).
Connected by 25: A ‘both/and’ project
CB25 was created with a holistic perspective, considering both the “trees” (young people who require services and connections on the ground) and the “forest” (communities, systems and policies). By providing direct support to young people and capturing their experiences—including barriers to success imposed by the system—CMHA Kelowna was able to identify areas of focus for broader community and system change.
Partner organizations contributed in-kind resources (services rather than money), including access to free psychiatric and mental health clinical sessions, substance use clinical supports, ongoing rent supplements, staff to provide help with system navigation, and project evaluation services.
The pilot project offered the following support services:
Youth Transitions Navigator
The navigator—a full-time position during the pilot project and now expanded to two—acts like a personal GPS system, providing young people with information and tangible assistance in accessing much-needed services. The navigator works one-on-one with youth over a period of time to create a plan that looks at outstanding needs in a number of areas, such as income assistance, employment, housing and mental health care. There is regular follow-up to measure progress.
In the case of one 18-year-old male faced with aging out of foster care, the navigator worked with the young person to secure income assistance through the Ministry of Social Development and Innovation, locate safe housing and make the transition between youth and adult mental health services.
“When I was under 18, everything was just given to me. When I aged out, I didn’t know what to do. Transitioning, when you age out, you are done. If there was no CB25, I’m not sure what I would be doing. I don’t really know of any other supports out there that would do what this program does.” —CB25 program participant, 20
Service duration is dependent on need and circumstance, and concludes when a young person reaches their identified goals and decides that services are no longer required.
Early on in piloting CB25, young people identified a lack of positive social activity in their lives, as well as a need to build skills around nutrition and cooking. This resulted in Supper Club, a weekly group that hosts between eight and 20 youth at CMHA Kelowna on Monday evenings. The young people plan a menu, purchase supplies and make dinner together with staff from the partner organizations.
While Supper Club develops life skills, a key outcome is the social connection that’s built between participants.
“It was the first time I had been in a real kitchen. It helped me see what it was like to really work as a team to make a final project. The whole day we were all working together toward a final goal; in this case it was a dinner, but in the case of Supper Club, it’s a group sense of good mental health and belonging.” —CB25 Supper Club participant, 19
Pilot project outcomes
Over the course of the CB25 pilot project (January 2012 to December 2013), 121 young people received help from a navigator. These were youth referred by existing community services or youth who had already aged out and were looking for supports. Key outcomes for the young people included:
80% connected to relevant community resources
88% reported an increase in life skills development
75% reported an increase in health and wellness
70% reported a stable income source
Since the pilot project concluded, CB25 has continued to evolve. CMHA Kelowna has been able to secure funding from multiple sources, including community foundations, service clubs, government and sponsors.
The voices of young people with lived experience have shaped, and continue to shape, the project. We have listened via targeted focus groups at Supper Club, as well as one-to-one feedback through interviews, surveys and the use of PhotoVoice (visit www.photovoice.org) PhotoVoice which uses photography to highlight the perspectives of participants and allows for grassroots social action.
New developments include:
LINC, a coordinated intake and assessment hub for youth experiencing mental health and/or substance use issues
new groups, including yoga and Ready to Rent, a skills group that provides the information and tools to become informed tenants
expanded rent supplements and housing support (assistance with rental applications and building skills in finding and maintaining housing) with ongoing funding through BC Housing
As of June 2015, just over 400 individuals had received some form of support from Connected by 25 since it was first launched.
Collective impact making a difference
CB25 has made, and is making, a concrete difference for vulnerable young people. It provides essential supports so they have a chance to transcend the ‘obstacle course’ and become connected and engaged young adults. In 2014 the program was recognized with a national award of excellence from Eva’s Initiatives in Toronto (www.evas.ca) for work in preventing youth homelessness.
CMHA Kelowna plays an ongoing role in raising the issues experienced by vulnerable young people. This includes involvement provincially in the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative, a working group on youth/young adult mental health and substance use services. The collaborative also includes the Ministry of Health (MoH), MCFD, Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation and Shared Care (a partnership between MoH and Doctors of BC). Nationally, we address issues through membership in the Learning Community on Youth Homelessness.
The CB25 project is a lived example of collective impact and the potential that partnership and collaboration holds in tackling a significant social challenge.
“Filling the gap. The bridge between youth and adult systems. We never had that before. We continued to bring this forward as a community, but nothing was ever addressed before. CB25 addresses risk factors before there’s a huge impact...when these needs are met, everything starts to fall into place.” —Probation officer
About the author
Mike is Director of Service Delivery and Program Innovation with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Kelowna branch. Involved in direct service delivery and leadership for 21 years, he has developed several programs and projects for vulnerable children, youth and adults. Mike holds a master’s degree in Leadership through Royal Roads University
The Community Action Initiative (CAI) supports communities that identify and seek to address mental health and substance use concerns. The organization was launched by the BC Alliance for Mental Health/Illness and Addictions through a $10 million grant from the Province of BC. See www.communityactioninitiative.ca