The Family Reconnect Toolkit has been developed for groups and communities across the country interested in exploring family intervention methods in responding to homeless and at-risk youth. The Toolkit is based on Eva’s Family Reconnect Program and was created to inform program development and broad community responses.
The original Family Reconnect Toolkit was developed with funding received from the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC). In 2016 the Toolkit was revised, because of the ongoing interest expressed by community agencies in family intervention work.
The Family Reconnect Program was established in 2001 when staff at Eva’s Place emergency shelter, one of three facilities for youth experiencing homelessness run by Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth, recognized how often residents were talking about and wanting to connect with their families. It was clear that there were a significant number of homeless youth who expressed an interest in developing healthy relationships with their families.
In 2006, the Family Reconnect Program expanded to include prevention services for youth who still lived at home but were at imminent risk of homelessness.
In 2010, York University Professors Daphne Winland and Stephen Gaetz, with Tara Patton M.A., completed a review of the Family Reconnect Program. The report, Family Matters: Homeless Youth and Eva’s Initiative’s Family Reconnect Program (PDF, 2 MB), includes an evaluation of the Family Reconnect Program, and takes a close look at the role that prevention strategies, or lack thereof, have played in the youth homelessness sector in Canada and worldwide.
Working in partnership with youth, families and community, the Family Reconnect Program is a leader in ensuring that homeless and at-risk youth have healthy and positive relationships and the opportunity to live in a state of dignity. With a respect for individual choice and cultural diversity, comprehensive counselling, support and advocacy services reunites and/or strengthens families, while strategically addressing the underlying causes of youth homelessness.
Part of the solution to homelessness is connection with significant people, and those significant people can be family.
Traditionally, in the homeless sector in Toronto, family has been viewed as a part of young people’s past but not considered as a part of young people’s present or future. This is understandable; youth often talk of experiencing abuse or of being kicked out of home. As a result, many frontline workers are left with the perception that the family is the problem and the young person needs to separate from them. This preconception has informed a focus on building independent living skills for youth to be self-sufficient. Unfortunately, it is a mistake to assume that self-sufficiency has to mean independence from family.
“Street youth, unlike homeless adults, leave homes defined by relationships (both social and economic) in which they were typically dependent upon adult caregivers. Becoming homeless then does not mean a loss of stable housing, but rather leaving a home in which they are embedded in relations of dependence, thus experiencing an interruption and potential rupture in social relations with parents and caregivers, family members, friends, neighbours and community” (Gaetz, 2014).
Independent living skills can be critical for homeless youth to learn in transitioning out of homelessness. However, there is room to ask some further questions about how to include, strengthen and maintain family connection during this transition.
At the Family Reconnect Program, we believe that effective service provision is not an either/or dichotomy where we reconnect with family OR we work towards independent living. From our experience, we know that these two goals can successfully occur in tandem to permanently end a young person’s experience of homelessness.
The understanding that the Family Reconnect Program works from is that, in addressing youth homelessness, family matters. Family relationships can be an important factor in both the prevention and the ending of young people’s experience of homelessness.
The pathways into homelessness are varied, and we consistently hear several overlapping factors being highlighted, including mental health struggles, unemployment, poverty, and alcohol and substance use. However, the number one reason that leads to youth homelessness is family disruption. The Family Reconnect Program supports families who are experiencing disruption or are at-risk of breakdown, to reduce the number of young people entering homelessness.
The experience of the Family Reconnect Program has been that youth having contact with family members is a factor that facilitates progress out of homelessness. Returning to family homes can sometimes be the most effective way to support a young person to rapidly exit the shelter system. Even when youth are not returning to family homes, having healthy relationships with family members provides practical and emotional support and provides connection to community outside of street life.
Exiting homelessness can be a complicated and difficult process for some youth re-entering mainstream culture and has been recognized as a significant challenge:
“Re-entering mainstream culture was the most difficult dimension, as young people were required to transition from an ‘identity of exclusion’ (i.e., being different, feeling stigmatized and marginalized) to one of ‘fitting in’ to mainstream lifestyles. Ironically, many youth found a sense of belonging within the street youth populations. There was also evidence that street life can provide feelings of community and family for many youth, a space where some feel cared for, accepted, and even protected. Moreover, findings suggest that for the most part, street youth services are seen as surrogate families for homeless youth, providing needed basics and safe and caring environments. It is precisely this sense of inclusion that makes it difficult for most young people to move away from street culture” (Karabanow & Naylor, 2013).
In the Family Reconnect Program, we have learned that, if during their experience of homelessness, young people can maintain healthy relationships with supportive family members who are outside of street culture, the challenge of transitioning out of homelessness into mainstream culture can be lessened.
PREVENTING A RETURN TO HOMELESSNESS
Young people who return home or have positive relationships with family are less likely to return to homelessness. In addition, positive relationships with family increase the likelihood that youth will experience the following positive outcomes: find and maintain employment, complete education, reduced criminal behaviour and involvement in the criminal justice system, and safer and reduced substance use. We have received feedback from the Bail Program stating that youth who they have referred to the Family Reconnect Program are not returning to their programs and are therefore not reoffending.
Gaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Toronto: The Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
Karabanow, J., Naylor, T. (2013) Pathways Towards Stability: Young People’s Transitions Off of the Streets in Gaetz, S., O Grady, B., Buccieri, K., Karabanow, J. & Marsolais, A. (Eds.), Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
- Youth in shelter talks about family
- Youth in shelter visits family
- At the time of intake, Eva’s staff will refer 16- and 17-year-olds and first-time shelter users
- Family member shows up at shelter to visit youth
- Family member contacts shelter inquiring about accessing a bed for their youth
- Family member arrives at the shelter with their youth inquiring about accessing a bed
- Youth self-refers
- Family member contacts program directly
- External organization (schools, shelters, hospitals, bail program, mental health agencies, parent support groups) refers youth or family member
- Family and individual counselling
- Referral to community resources for youth and/or family members
- Youth Groups
- Return home
- Move to extended family member(s) home
- Remain at home
- Move to or remain in independent, transitional or supportive housing with family support
- Reduction in risk factors and increase in protective factors
The program builds relationships with community partners for referrals and supports. The Family Reconnect Program staff actively seeks to connect with organizations that serve youth ages 14-24. Some examples of referral sources are schools, shelters, hospitals, bail programs, mental health court workers, community case managers, psychologists, mental health agencies, child welfare and parent support groups.
The Family Reconnect Program’s offices and counselling space are located in Eva’s Place youth shelter.
Currently, the Family Reconnect Program consists of two Family Intervention Counsellors, a Manager, and a Clinical Consultant.
The Family Intervention Counsellors work directly with the youth and families in the program. The Counsellors provide family and individual counselling, case management, referrals, accompaniment and advocacy.
The Family Intervention Counsellors are integrated members of the shelter team. For example, one of the Counsellors facilitates a weekly Eva’s Place youth group, which offers interactive workshops, discussions, art activities, and movies. Family Intervention Counsellors participate in weekly shelter case conference meetings and are the case managers for Eva’s Place residents who are involved in the Family Reconnect Program.
Family Intervention Counsellors play a role in advocating for the significance of family in preventing and addressing youth homelessness, which includes program presentations for community agencies, parenting groups, schools, police and hospitals, as well as routinely presenting the work of the program at North American conferences.
The program’s Manager oversees the day to day operations of the program, including outreach, program promotion, budgets, funding reports, staff supervision and performance appraisals. As a member of the shelter’s leadership team and organization’s management team this position is active in seeking funding for the program and developing policies and procedures. The Manager also facilitates the intake process of new youth and families and assigns cases to the Family Intervention Counsellors according to current caseloads.
The Clinical Consultant provides ongoing clinical supervision and consultation to the Family Reconnect Program staff. The Clinical Consultant provides monthly individual supervision reviewing all casework and clinical practice. The Clinical Consultant assisted in the development of the Family Assessment Summary, the Progress and Discharge Summary, and the Clinical Supervision Notes form. They review these documents with the Family Intervention Counsellors during supervision. The consultant supports the clinical and professional development goals of the program’s staff and contributes to annual performance appraisals. Our consultant is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist with the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a Registered Psychotherapist with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario.
INTAKE AND REFERRALS
As previously mentioned, the Family Reconnect Program receives referrals from shelters, schools, the criminal justice system, parent support groups, as well as other relevant community agencies. These referral sources will submit a Referral Form (PDF, 65 KB) by fax or email. If the manager is contacted directly by a family, they will determine if the Family Reconnect Program is the best service to meet the family’s needs and will complete an Intake Form (PDF, 66 KB). The case is then assigned to one of the Family Intervention Counsellors, who will contact the family within 72 hours. It is not uncommon for the Counsellor to meet with the family within a week of the referral.
ENGAGING YOUTH AND FAMILIES WITHIN THE SHELTER
The program works very closely with the shelter staff to emphasize the significance of family in ending and preventing youth homelessness.
The following are examples of youth who are referred to the Family Reconnect Program. Once referred, the Family Intervention Counsellors meet with these youth within 72 hours.
- A 16 or 17-year-old
- A first-time shelter user
- Youth arriving at the shelter with family member(s)
- Youth talking to or about family and/or visiting family
- Youth requesting overnight visits with family
If a family member arrives at the shelter or calls to inquire about a bed for their youth, they are immediately directed to the Family Reconnect team. A Family Reconnect Program staff will meet with them before the youth intakes to explore alternative options; for example, the youth remaining at home with support from the Family Reconnect Program. If program staff are not available, shelter staff will provide the family with information about the program. Shelter staff will also email the Family Reconnect Program team with information about the new intake.
The Family Reconnect Program assists with long distance phone calls, speaks with family members to arrange overnight visits, and supports transportation costs for youth to visit or return to family outside the city.
“The (Counsellor) expressed a desire to meet with us and was so sensitive to the delicate mindset I was in, she suggested she would come to our home and meet. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.” (A parent)
The Family Reconnect Program strives to make the program accessible in a number of ways.
We aim to connect with families within 72 hours of being referred to the program. It is not uncommon for the Counsellor to meet with the family within a week of the referral. Our goal is to not have a waitlist due to the urgent needs of families. Our experience has been that a long wait for service could result in a young person becoming homeless.
We offer very flexible hours of service. The Counsellors work four 10-hour days to accommodate evening appointments. The Counsellors are also required to have a car, as we offer a mobile service and will meet with youth and families in the community or in family homes. To ensure staff safety, Counsellors are provided with cell phones and details of off-site meetings are recorded in an electronic scheduler.
There is no cost and no time limit for services or cap on the number of sessions. We continue to work with youth and families as long as needed, based on family and youth goals, as well as clinical judgement.
The location of our office is accessible by public transit, and we are able to provide clients with tokens for transportation, if needed. We are located in a shelter, so it is important that we have a separate entrance for the Family Reconnect Program to maintain confidentiality of the shelter residents. Our counselling room is comfortable and private.
There are also a number of “smaller”, but significant, services for our clients to support connection with their families. We provide long distance calling cards for youth to keep in contact with their family, as well as holiday and birthday cards with stamps. We also offer families and youth food packages, and partner with other organizations that donate holiday gifts to families each year.
FAMILY SATISFACTION SURVEY
Immediately following the completion of services with the Family Reconnect Program, each family member who was involved in the program’s services is invited to complete a Family Satisfaction Survey (PDF, 56 KB). Families have the option of completing a paper copy or an electronic version through Survey Monkey. Should family members choose to complete the paper copy, they are provided with a stamped, return envelope addressed to the Family Reconnect Program’s Manager.
Download the Family Reconnect Program Logic Model (PDF, 102 KB), a tool that provides a visual representation of the program’s activities and expected outcomes.
The Family Reconnect Program’s funding is administered by the City of Toronto, which follows a Housing First approach to addressing homelessness. Housing First focuses on moving, as rapidly as possible, people who are experiencing homelessness from the street or emergency shelters into permanent housing with or without supports depending on client’s need. All City of Toronto funded projects are expected to contribute to reducing or preventing homelessness by assisting the long-term and episodically homeless, as well as those at-risk of homelessness.
As a result, the Family Reconnect Program includes the following outcomes in reports to the City:
- the number of homeless youth supported to access stable housing (returning to family homes, moving to private, transitional and supportive housing);
- the number of formerly homeless youth who received support to remain in stable housing; and
- the number of youth at-risk of homelessness who remain in stable housing and do not experience homelessness.
Download a sample statistical tracking sheet (PDF, 89 KB).
EVA’S PLACE HOUSING OUTCOMES
As a result of being located at Eva’s Place shelter, we are able to access specific statistics that show the housing outcomes for all youth who stay at the shelter and the correlation with involvement in Family Reconnect Program services.
Housing outcomes for youth who moved from Eva’s Place in a planned, voluntary way and did not return to homelessness (January 1-December 31, 2016)
Youth who moved from Eva’s Place in a planned, voluntary way and did not return to homelessness (January 1-December 31, 2016)
These charts indicate that, at Eva’s Place, a greater number of youth receive service with the Family Reconnect Program than return to family homes. Our understanding is that the strengthening of relationships with significant others is of benefit to youth exiting homelessness, whether or not they are returning to family homes.
The Family Reconnect Program is able to illustrate cost savings to the Toronto shelter system. The following formula indicates the savings achieved by our program.
Number of youth who return home; move to private, supportive or transitional housing with family involvement; or are prevented from entering the shelter system
Monthly per diem rate at shelter
Average 3-month shelter stay
Cost savings to shelter system
For example, in 2015 the Family Reconnect Program supported 126 youth to avoid entering or to leave homelessness. In that same year, the cost of a 3-month shelter stay was $5338.20.
The total savings to the shelter system was $672,613.20.
The Family Reconnect Program is funded by the Federal Government with funds administered by the City’s Shelter, Housing and Support Division and also corporate and foundation donors that understand the importance and prioritize homelessness prevention for young people.
The budget covers three full time staff and a fee-for-service Clinical Consultant. The budget includes salaries, benefits, staff and client travel, staff training, office and program supplies, promotion and outreach materials, long distance calls and cell phones.
“She hopped around from shelter to shelter in the city. Each night she would text goodnight and we would say we loved each other and we would ask her to be safe. The summer was hard but we got by with the hope held in that brief nightly message. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from a Family Reconnect counsellor, who told us that our daughter would like to come back home. We started weekly sessions immediately and after considerable negotiation we had hammered out a contract that was mutually agreeable. It was heated, it was volatile, but we were making progress despite the fact that compromise was a very difficult concept for all of us. She came home the same day we adopted a stray cat. They are both still with us. We continued our weekly sessions regaining each other’s trust and ironing out issues before they got out of hand. The Family Reconnect Program was a place where we got reassurance that all was not lost and that we were neither bad parents nor she a ‘bad’ kid. They were there at the other end of the phone when we phoned in panic fearing that escalation of problems would lead to her leaving again. Most importantly, the program allowed us, unlike with social workers and psychiatrists, to be part of the loop and part of the solution.” (A parent)
” … I can finally talk to my parents now. After many sessions learning communication strategies and avoiding confrontations, I now can clearly express myself to my parents. My relationship with them strengthened and they started to take me more seriously.” (A youth)
“It was appreciated having the Counsellor come to our house so we were all more relaxed and our daughter was in her environment. It was great to have a neutral person point out more obvious topics, patterns and solutions that the family could not see.” (A parent)
“Our Counsellor was careful not to take sides and seemed to always seek common ground, clarification and ways in which we could accommodate, agree to disagree and understand where each was coming from. The counselling helped us to look at strategies for keeping the family together and the lines of communication open. The sessions provided an effective framework for reflection and negotiation amongst all involved. You provided a safe and trusted environment to express troubling issues. The family sessions gave us the opportunity to hear each other out, to each express our own viewpoints without interruption which then gave direction for follow-up on our own at home.” (Parents)
“The services were very accessible which was important as the issue at hand was pressing. The complexity of the issues required an overview and comprehensive understanding of social interactions and personal difficulties. The Counsellor quickly was able to comprehend our difficulties and consequently offered valuable insights. I cannot think of anything that could improve an operation that was/is as effective as this program.” (A parent)
“We were able to meet soon after contacting Eva’s. Also, the appointments were scheduled after work and school to suit us. The Counsellor was very accommodating. He is quiet, respectful and insightful. Bringing the family together helped everyone understand what our child was going through and helped her communicate with us better so we could help. She is very much settled now. We are more excepting of some of her ‘quirks’ and less judgmental. A loving relationship was restored and our child is making great progress. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved with this program. It improved communication with our other kids too.” (Parents)
The Family Reconnect Program works with homeless and at-risk youth aged 14-24 interested in establishing, re-establishing and maintaining supportive relationships with their families.
“Family” is defined by the youth and family members involved in the program. This may mean the “typical” family constellation of mother, father, and siblings, but it can also include a grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin, neighbor, and/or family friend. Family and individual counselling is offered for youth and their families and may focus on any of the following issues as they relate to the root causes of their struggles: family breakdown, youth and parent conflict, communication difficulties, sibling relationships, drug and alcohol use, and life and parenting skills.
This service is available to young people who are already homeless (16-24) or at-risk of becoming homeless (14-24), and our services often continue when they move home or move into community housing. For some young people, moving home is not the goal. However, youth moving to housing in the community are more likely to be successful with supportive family involvement. Other core components of the Family Reconnect Program are referrals, advocacy and accompaniment to community agencies and services, including psychiatric and psychological assessments, housing, case management, mentoring, parenting groups, mental health and addiction supports.
The Family Intervention Counsellors work with families to navigate the system and access needed services. The Counsellors not only provide referrals for the youth, but for other family members as well. For example, if a family member has severe depression that is influencing their relationship with the youth, the counsellor may refer them to appropriate services.
To be able to address relationship issues effectively, sometimes we need to start with the basic human needs: how can we work with someone and focus on family relationships if they are hungry or used their last bus ticket to come to a session?