What's the latest frontier in the fight against homelessness? Your spare room

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What's the latest frontier in the fight against homelessness? Your spare room

Catherine Pawlick-Grimes is excited as she leads the way into a second-floor spare bedroom with a queen-size bed and adjoining bathroom, meticulously clean and ready for the guest she's expecting. 

"We don't need five bedrooms anymore," says Pawlick-Grimes.

She and her husband, Tim Grimes, raised three children in this large suburban home in Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto. But their two daughters — ages 20 and 25 — have moved out, leaving only their 22-year-old son living with them as he goes to school.

The next person to spend the night in their daughter's old room could be the same age as any of their own kids, or even as young as 16. But unlike them, he or she will be sleeping in the immaculately made bed as an alternative to staying in a shelter or on the streets.

"I can't imagine someone just being on the street," Pawlick-Grimes says. "I said [to Tim], 'Oh we have to help, hon.'  We have to help. We have a house here that's open. Why would we not?" 

The couple is among about 20 households in York Region preparing to take in a homeless young person between 16 and 26 years of age who needs a safe place to spend the night. They've signed up for a "host homes" program called Nightstop that makes its Canadian debut on Monday.  

Nightstop started in Leeds, England, in 1987 and has since spread to more than 30 cities and communities across Britain.

According to the U.K.-based head of the program, more than 600 volunteer households opened their spare rooms to almost 1,400 young people across Britain last year.  

"It's very much targeted at those young people who have suffered some kind of family or relationship breakdown and exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go," says Nicola Harwood of Nightstop U.K. "Ideally it's about preventing homelessness — so supporting those young people before they begin rough sleeping [outside]."  

Slept on bathroom floor

Jason Leconte, 22, wishes Nightstop existed in Canada two years ago. He had aged out of foster care and although he had a job and an apartment for a while, his mental health declined and he lost both. 

For a while, Leconte got by staying with friends. But when that was no longer an option, he found himself homeless in York Region and took refuge in a coffee shop because it was too cold to sleep outside and he was afraid of going to a shelter.  

"When I ended up on that Tim Horton's bathroom floor, if there had been a community member that had said, 'You know, you can come stay with us,' I wouldn't have had to go through the shelter system," he says. 

"It's going to be a completely different experience walking through the doors of an institution and walking through the front door of a home."   

Leconte finally found the support he needed at 360°kids — the non-profit organization that's bringing Nightstop to York Region as its first Canadian location, with hopes of helping expand the program across the country. 

Although 360°kids has built safe shelter space specifically for youth — where Leconte is staying while he goes to school — the demand for those rooms exceeds capacity, says spokesperson Lesley Sims, noting that the host home program offers a much less expensive alternative.  

"It's way too costly ... to build our way out of homelessness," she says.  

Host families can take in a young person as often or as infrequently as they'd like on nights they pick according to their schedules, Sims says.

To avoid any potentially awkward conversations the next morning, youth are not allowed to ask the family directly if they can stay another night, but must speak to the program's co-ordinator, who sets up each night's accommodation.

The program also provides case management support to the youth to help them reach a long-term housing solution. 

As intrusive as the notion of taking in a stranger for the night might sound at first, "it's actually a really simple volunteering opportunity," says Harwood.

"Your evening isn't vastly different to how it might be any other night of the week, where you'll be able to, you know, still have the same meals, still watch the same programs on TV,  except you'll have someone in your spare room who ordinarily would have nowhere else to go." 

'We had fears'

Still, it's natural for people to worry about safety, Harwood says.

"But once we go through a fairly robust service, a risk assessment we do and how we check both volunteers and young people, most volunteers are reassured fairly quickly," she says. 

That was certainly the case for the Grimes family. 

"Oh, we had fears," Pawlick-Grimes says. "You don't want anybody in your house that could harm you."

"Or get future access to the house," her husband adds. 

Organizers say the home hosting program works — and is safe — because only youth assessed as "low risk" can participate, filtering out young people with an untreated drug addiction or with gang affiliations. Young people who come to 360°kids for emergency housing will be referred to the Nightstop program co-ordinator for placement with a participating family.    

On the host family side, the co-ordinator does a home assessment and ensures they lock up alcohol, household chemicals and valuables. To protect the youth, the families must pass police and security checks and the home undergoes a safety inspection, checking for things like properly installed smoke detectors. 

The young person must also have their own private bedroom with a lock. Host families can't just offer up a sofa because couch surfing itself is actually a form of "hidden homelessness" Nightstop is trying to combat.

Host families go through a group orientation session, where they discuss their fears or uncertainties and role-play different situations. 

"Maybe we'll say, 'Hey, we were going to play a board game, would you like to play?' They may not," says Pawlick-Grimes. "Some people just want a safe, quiet place to know that they're comfortable in and maybe just reflect for the evening. Or they might want to actually interact."

'We know it works'

The host home model is "the future" in preventing young people from entering homeless shelters and the streets — or getting them out of that dangerous world as quickly as possible, says Stephen Gaetz, a York University professor and director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

He is also the president of national anti-homelessness charity Raise The Roof, which plans to work with 360°kids to take the Nightstop program Canada-wide.    

On any given night, between 6,000 and 7,000 youth between 13 and 24 years of age are homeless in Canada, according to the observatory.   

Even one night of homelessness is one too many, Gaetz says — and that's where host homes can really make a difference.  

"We know from research that incredible damage is done to young people when they wind up homeless for any length of time at all," Gaetz told CBC News.

That damage shows up in the form of declining physical health, including malnourishment, and mental health, including higher risk of depression and suicidality, he says.

Young people who are homeless are more likely to be victims of crime and "incredible exploitation," he says.

"There's lots of people waiting, you know, drug dealers, pimps, to go after them."    

A few Canadian organizations have started host home programs for homeless youth, but they are rare, says Gaetz. One program called Bridging the Gap  in Halton Region, west of Toronto, has about five host homes that offer longer-term stays. Another program to house LGBTQ homeless youth in Calgary launched in 2015. 

But no host home program in Canada has the three decades of experience and proven ability to be applied on a national scale that Nightstop does, Gaetz says. 

He believes the program's arrival in Canada could represent a significant turning point in the fight against youth homelessness.

"We have a real chance if we want to make, you know, a big difference very quickly in Canada," he says. "It's not going to be bumbling along and experimenting. We've got something that is evidence-based, we know it works."

Although the host homes themselves provide inexpensive shelter, Gaetz says, the program's success relies on the accompanying case management for participating youth.

Funding that support, rather than building more shelters, is where governments need to direct their youth homelessness dollars, he says. 

Leconte says as he gets closer to living independently once again, he may not need to use the host home program himself — but is moved by the fact that people in the community care enough to open their spare rooms to others like him. 

"If these people are reaching out to us to help us, maybe I'm worth something."  

Want to hear more? Meet the Pawlick-Grimes family on CBC Radio's The World This Weekend on March 12 at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. AT, 7:30 p.m. NT).