A Roof Over Her Head

Ottawa Project Provides Supportive Housing to Young Women in Trouble with the Law

A project in Ottawa addresses an oft-ignored factor that contributes to youth criminality: safe, stable housing.

“Without a good living environment, many young people struggle to get themselves out of trouble,” says Christine MacIntosh, Director of Youth and Child Services at the John Howard Society of Ottawa. “Some of them are homeless; others couch-surf or live in environments that are so unstable or abusive that they struggle to stay in school or hold down jobs.”

To develop a solution specifically for such young women, the Society created a housing program known as the Summerville Project. Planning for the program began in 2007, when the City of Ottawa called for proposals to deal with homelessness. The Society proposed to build an apartment building exclusively for young women and, with funding from the Department of Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund, run a pilot project to help residents complete school, start careers and improve their life skills. Since the new building was completed in November 2009, all eight apartments have been occupied on a virtually continuous basis.

To qualify for the Summerville Project, a woman must be at least 16 at the time of referral, be actively supervised by youth probation and have unstable living arrangements. She must be prepared to live semi-independently, commit to attend school or work, and be able to pay rent (the amount is set according to provincial social assistance rates). In addition, she must be willing to work toward specific goals.

The project’s support services focus on four areas: career, family, community and self. Each resident works with the program coordinator to design and implement a plan based on her particular circumstances. The coordinator matches residents with appropriate services, such as tutors, training programs and job and placement opportunities. Residents meet with the coordinator several times a week to track progress and address emerging issues; they also participate in Girls…Moving On™, a specialized group program.

Strict Rules, Strong Ssupport

Residents must also abide by a series of strict rules. Overnight visitors are not permitted, for instance, and residents may host no more than two visitors at a time. Closed-circuit cameras monitor entrances and exits 24 hours a day; support workers review all footage on a regular basis.

“Security is a big concern for us,” says Christine MacIntosh. “We check all visitors carefully because safety for the young women is paramount. We have to be strict.”

The Project’s consistent support and regular follow-up aim to encourage the young women to avoid the risky behaviour and unhealthy influences that got them in trouble with the law. During the Project’s first two, years only in a few cases were residents asked to leave because they had broken a rule and jeopardized the safety of other residents. Program coordinator Alison Newson attributes the program’s success to a ‘tough love’ approach.

“We give them whatever support they need, celebrate their successes and get on them quickly when they struggle,” she says. “For some of these young women, that’s a brand new approach.”

With a background in victim services and social work, Alison Newson plays a key role in the project. She oversees every aspect of the program from an office located just off the apartment building lobby.

“We maintain a family atmosphere,” she says. “I keep track of everyone’s progress while I’m here during the day and often get updates after hours by text messaging. Support workers are here every day to help them with routine challenges.”

Rigorous Screening Process

The residents also meet regularly with probation officers, a principal source of referrals to the Summerville Project. Other referrals come from the Children’s Aid Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society. Candidates complete a comprehensive screening process to identify their strengths, weaknesses and risk factors. Project staff also interview the references provided by candidates - a key step in the process, according to Christine MacIntosh.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned is the importance of interviewing references early in the process,” says MacIntosh. “In some cases, the interviews revealed that the project couldn’t really meet the needs of the candidate. Doing the reference checks early in the intake process improves our ability to identify who we can best serve and who we can refer to other housing services.”

Another lesson learned relates to the challenges of service as both building owner and provider of youth-justice services. “At the beginning, it was a steep learning curve,” says Christine MacIntosh. “We have to balance the priorities of meeting the needs of residents with our responsibilities as the owner of an apartment building in a residential community.”

A Delicate Balance

It’s an unusual challenge for an organization that has traditionally focused on services. The John Howard Society of Ottawa is a not-for-profit community-service agency that specializes in helping individuals and families at risk of, or in, conflict with the law. As the link between criminal behaviour and a lack of stable housing became increasingly clear, the Society began to pilot housing projects. The first youth pilot, which received funding in 2002 through the Youth Justice Fund, was A Different Street - a three-year pilot project targeting young men coming out of custody who had no where to live.  A Different Street proved so successful that it continues to operate today and provided the framework for other projects. With the addition of Summerville, the Society now owns, manages and provides services for both youth and adults in a total of six buildings and plans to add more.

“The bottom line is that the demand is greater than the supply,” says Christine MacIntosh. “And we believe that this approach - safe, low-cost housing combined with targeted support services - is an effective way to reduce the likelihood of further involvement in the justice system.”

Preliminary evaluations of the Summerville Project have been positive. Through the first three years of the project, none of the residents were charged with new criminal offences. The project enjoys widespread support in Ottawa’s youth-justice community.

"If a young woman doesn't have a safe, supportive place to call home, it's almost impossible for her to get the rest of her life in order," says Kelly Raymond, Manager of Child and Youth In Care Services at the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa. "Summerville helps divert these young women from further involvement in crime by tackling root causes."

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