Designing a service strategy for Duty to Assist

Policy is notoriously difficult for service providers to implement on the ground. Our project challenge this summer was to use design to prototype components of Duty to Assist—a human rights approach to youth homelessness prevention—in Hamilton, Ontario, in order to deliver a more effective and implementable policy. Our goal, then, was to translate a proposed set of policies into a service to find out how it would be interpreted by stakeholders and what might need to change to clarify and improve the policy. 

We used a service design approach to support this translation process. We performed arts-based research with young people with lived experience of homelessness and professionals who work in the field to identify needs. We co-created future services based on Duty to Assist with professionals from across Hamilton. Then we refined service concepts and tested them with young people and service providers. 

The project is now coming to a close. What did we come up with? We’d like to introduce you to PluggedIn—our vision of what a school-based service strategy could look like in a world where Duty to Assist is law. 

Let’s imagine a school that has rolled out the PluggedIn service. When young people walk down the hallways, when they look around the classrooms or listen to the morning announcements, they know their rights, and they feel supported. Teachers are trained and confident, ready to spot early signs that a student may be at risk of becoming homeless. Not only do teachers notice the signs, they know the steps to take to connect students to the supports they need. Then there’s Common Ground, a space at school that brings community support TO students, meeting them where they are. 

All of this is coordinated and supported by AI-driven support so that teachers and students have the advice and resources they need, right at their fingertips. 

These four innovative components—youth-centred school awareness, AI-driven support, Common Ground drop-in centre, and Duty to Assist real-world training—work together to keep school staff and students plugged into the community. This is a future where school is more than a place to learn—it is the heart and soul of the community. 

Alina Turner and Amanda DiFalco refer to our work as a game-changer that is operationalizing the right to housing. Our unique partnership with Making the Shift, co-led by Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada, has made it all possible. 

We presented our final project at Living Rock Ministries on August 23. The gathering exemplified the power of community. Nearly 50 attendees were at the event, representing diverse stakeholder groups. Their presence was evidence that the Hamilton community is committed to ending youth homelessness. 

Participants provided feedback on the four service elements we presented and responded to three questions we had surrounding policy implementation: 

1) How might we refine the Duty to Assist policy to better acknowledge the unique needs of Indigenous young people and better account for the legacy of colonialism and the historical marginalization of Indigenous youth? 

2) How might we more clearly distinguish between competing and complementary professional duties without overburdening professionals who already have a lot on their plates? 

3) How might we position Duty to Assist as a strengths-based obligation intended to lift up and support young people, not punish or report them?

A participant providing feedback and putting up her answers to the three questions we asked during the presentation. 

Participants were involved in the presentation, introducing themselves at the beginning, asking questions, and providing input throughout. The research presentation was honest, intimate, and reaffirmed that people care about piloting this project. 

Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, shares his feedback on PluggedIn. 

It was a privilege working on this project. We thank our project partners for all their support. We also thank the people we worked with in the homelessness sector who tirelessly work on the front lines every day and who graciously shared their knowledge and wisdom with us. Most importantly, we thank the youth we worked with for designing with us and telling us their stories. Their commitment and excitement is the reason our work could move forward.

If you’d also like to give us feedback and help answer the same questions participants from the final presentation answered around policy implementation, please complete this Google form.

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