Following the path from adolescence to adulthood can be difficult for many young people.
Those who wander off and find themselves homeless and/or struggling with mental health issues often could have kept their lives on track if help had been provided during their school years instead of “flying under the radar”.
A new pilot project has been launched by Central Okanagan Public Schools called Upstream Kelowna, the result of the City of Kelowna-funded Journey Home Strategy which outlined 10 action plans, one being a partnership with the school district, with the goal of establishing a five-year plan to address homelessness in the city.
Based on a similar program started in Australia, Upstream Kelowna was established in January 2020 for two colleges, Springvalley in October 2021 and KLO in April 2022.
Stakeholder partners in Upstream Kelowna beyond the school district and the city include The Bridge, Foundry Kelowna, ARC Programs, Okanagan Boys and Girls Club and Westbank First Nation.
Philippa Putlitz, Kelowna’s upstream coordinator, said the school-based prevention strategy reflects the impact students have on the number of homeless people.
Putlitz, speaking to the Central Okanagan School Board about the program Wednesday, May 11, said according to the 2018 Homeless Survey, 35,000 Canadians are homeless each night and 40% have started to find themselves homeless before the age of 16. .
She explained that preventing children from dropping out of school was key to giving them a chance to succeed as adults.
The operating model for Upstream Kelowna was created by the Canada Upstream Project, a national initiative to prevent, rather than respond to, youth homelessness across the country.
Using a population screening tool, the project identifies at-risk youth and connects them with supports that help them stay in school and maintain stable housing.
The screening tool involves voluntary assessment, analysis of data collected, validation through follow-up interviews and connection with support agencies.
Putlitz said the first assessment was voluntary for KLO Middle 8th graders and had a 96% response.
The results in total for the two schools saw access to coordinated support provided to over 50 students/families and identified 138 students with possible risk factors.
“The impact of the assessments was that we found that 39% of our respondents were students who had an unknown risk they were facing in their lives, who were flying under the radar,” she said.
“If we can identify and help these children before these risks become bigger problems, it will help them stay in school.”
Of those receiving help, 43% reported increased stability at home; 53% felt an increased sense of belonging, safety and security; 31 percent reported improved school attendance; and 27 percent saw an improvement in feelings of depression and hopelessness.
Family problems at home and mental health service needs, both at 68%, were the two greatest requests for coordinated support services.
Putlitz said addressing health and social issues at home and school is hard work, but success in impacting families’ quality of life is a worthwhile outcome.
This success was recognized by Upstream Kelowna who won a youth homelessness prevention award from Making The Shift, a social innovation lab research project on youth homelessness.
She said her enthusiastic ambitions for Upstream Kelowna’s expansion are only limited by access to the financial resources to make it happen.
Its goal for 2022-2023 is to continue working to find the funding to increase the reach of the service and work to upgrade assessments in four schools, which would impact some 800 students.
School board president Moyra Baxter said she would like the name of the program changed to Upstream Central Okanagan to reflect the involvement of Lake Country and Westside schools.
“There is a great need for programs like this and we know how important they are,” Baxter said.
“This is a powerful program for engaging families to help them address the issues they face early on before they become something much bigger,” added Administrator Chantelle Desrosiers.
Central Okanagan Regional DistrictCity of Kelowna