Is the Basic Needs Allowance helping or hindering youth?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
January 08, 2016
Tags: youth
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Justin S. via our latest website survey: Homeless youth now receive the Basic Needs Allowance of Ontario Works ($250/month), where as previously youth would receive Personal Needs Allowance ($30/week). This appears to have resulted in a decrease in participation in programming activities (life skills, employment, etc.) as young people report not needing to participate in programs for income. Is receiving the Basic Needs Allowance helping or hindering young people moving out of the homelessness experience?

Education, training and employment can play important roles in helping people out of homelessness. For youth, who are still developing the skills, social relationships and work experience necessary for independent life, they can be even more important in helping them secure housing.

It is impossible for me to concretely state that receiving more funding from Ontario Works either helps or hinders youth, as I am not privy to every possible context; nor can I find studies on this topic (but please let us know if you find any). If you were asking for my opinion though, I would say that receiving Ontario Works probably does benefit youth in that it is an important income source for them in what is likely a financially precarious time.

Even with the Basic Needs Allowance (BNA), youth experiencing homeless are likely to face many economic struggles. As a 2010 Toronto news article pointed out, Ontario Works recipients do not make enough to meet all living needs. (At that time, MPPs estimated a single person would need at least $1,314 a month – the Basic Needs Allowance is $250.) There tend to be other income sources in the mix, but government benefits are known to provide much less than is necessary to survive with health and dignity, especially for lone individuals. Furthermore, involvement with Ontario Works involves a lack of privacy, constant surveillance, and a pressure to find any kind of employment (regardless of pay scale, quality, or usefulness) – which can be triggering and even more difficult for youth experiencing homelessness. Marius’ story, a street-involved youth from London, ON, provides an excellent perspective on the harm that can be done by these kinds of regulations.   

But going back to the question: it asks us to consider what skills, education and jobs youth may be “missing out on” by not being forced to enroll in them for income. This kind of framing leads us to think primarily about skills and motivation, which we know are not the major causes of homelessness.

Raising the Roof studyConflict and structural issues are common causes of youth homelessness

As is the case with anyone, the causes of homelessness for youth are varied and complex. For youth, the stakes are particularly high. Even in relatively stable environments, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is a rocky path. For youth experiencing homelessness, family conflict ranks high on the many causes leading to their situations. As Dr. Stephen Gaetz wrote in Coming of Age: “

The research on youth homelessness is fairly consistent in identifying difficult family situations and conflict as the key underlying factors in youth homelessness (Karabanow, 2004; Karabanow & Naylor, 2013; Gaetz & O’Grady, 2002; Braitstein et al., 2003; Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Janus et al., 1995). There is extensive research in Canada and the United States that points to the fact that the majority of street youth come from homes where there were high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, interpersonal violence and assault, parental neglect and exposure to domestic violence, etc. (Ballon et al., 2001; Gaetz et al., 2002; Karabanow, 2004; 2009; Rew et al., 2001; Thrane et al., 2006; Tyler & Bersani, 2008; Tyler et al., 2001; Whitbeck and Hoyt 1999; Van den Bree et al., 2009). In some cases, parental psychiatric disorders (Andres-Lemay et al., 2005) and addictions (McMorris et al., 2002) may be factors. It is also clear that childhood abuse, trauma and living in a constant state of fear, have long-lasting consequences for brain development, decision-making, the formation of attachments and positive social development (Baker-Collins, 2013; Anda et al., 2006; Sokolowski et al., 2013; McEwan & Sapolsky, 1995).

Further to this point: A 2006 study on the pathways to youth homelessness found that trauma was extremely common amongst homeless youth. And as I wrote in my post, “Why are there so many homeless youth?”, a study by Eva’s Initiatives ound that 36.2% of participants in their Family Reconnect program cite ongoing conflict as the underlying cause of their family issues.

In the structural factor realm, there are many. 43% of participants in a Raising the Roof study had been in the child welfare system. Systemic discrimination and colonization also play large roles in in homelessness. Aboriginal Peoples, especially those in urban areas, youth and who are also sexual minorities, are over-represented in homeless populations.

If our goal is simply to help youth find jobs and get them out of “the system” then yes, I suppose non-participation might hinder that goal. But such a goal ignores the structural and systemic issues that lead youth to homelessness in the first place, and in some cases, may help explain their lack of desire to participate.

What does participation mean, anyway?

In many programs, non-participation is regarded very negatively and results in a lack of services or housing. But not all: In the Foyer model, for example, youth are offered a variety of transitional or enhanced housing options and are encouraged to participate in programs. In such models, education and work training are considered very high priority for residents. But as our Foyer toolkit outlines, “some young people may be disengaged from education, or may not be ready for the changes that are required to move forward” and asserts that no one should lose housing based on a lack of participation. The writers go on to state that “we know from research that training alone is not sufficient to help marginalized and homeless youth move forward, because their predicament is not simply a consequence of their lack of skills or motivation.”

If we accept that homelessness simply isn’t a result of “laziness” or “lack of desire,” then we can look critically at what we are offering youth and what participation means in our agencies. Many programs do not take the needs, desires and genuine opinions of youth into account. Youth rarely get to make decisions for themselves, and this is especially the case if they are marginalized and/or experiencing homelessness. So if youth aren’t attending because they aren’t being forced to out of a need for money, agencies may have to look inward to understand what could make their programs more attractive and useful.  

The Inspire Foundation in Australia published the details and theoretical background of their model of youth participation, Reach Out!, which includes three levels of involvement that go well beyond simply attending trainings or “receiving services.” Their model heavily emphasizes connections, relationships and community – not simply jobs and life skills. In their programs, “…youth participation enhances feelings of control, meaning, and connectedness, it can contribute to building resilience and competencies in young people, as well as supporting several developmental processes.”

But even programs specifically geared towards “youth empowerment” often have issues. Due to available funding, many are positioned as “job training” programs, which come with a host of requirements (depending on who is funding it). Elyse Gordon critically examined one such program in the United States, concluding that these programs become part of “young people’s lives during a political economic and social moment that is severely limited by neoliberal values, constraints and discourses.” She also recommends that organizations participate in thorough evaluation and self-reflexive practices in order to better serve youth in their communities. This requires everyone involved to look at the factors that can both cause and prevent poverty and homelessness, and provide a crucical level of understanding in providing programs to youth that they want to attend.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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