OF COURSE we need a separate definition for youth homelessness!

Recently there has been a growing focus on the problem of youth homelessness. More and more people are recognizing the scope of the problem, and are expressing a desire to do something about it. Today we’ve released the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness to support this work.

You might be thinking: “Why do we need a definition of youth homelessness? Isn’t it clear? They are young. They are homeless.” Well, there’s more to it than that. When we released the Canadian Definition of Homelessness in 2012, our goal was to provide a sharp definition that could help the public, policy makers and service providers share a common language and understanding. We drew attention to the problem of homelessness as something we as a society have created, not a description of individual failings. We created a four part typology of homelessness and housing insecurity that provided details regarding the nature and scope of housing and shelter situations that people living in extreme poverty might find themselves in. At that time we also indicated that the work was not done; that we also needed some focused definitions of youth and indigenous homelessness, for instance, to accompany the broader Canadian definition.

A common definition of youth homelessness is important for several reasons:

To share a common language 

For those interested in addressing youth homelessness an agreed upon definition gives us a common language to talk about, think about, and respond to the problem. Up until now, there has generally not been a lot of consensus – within government or the community – as to what age range the term applies to. Does it include young people under the age of 16? Over the age of 18, or 20? We have landed on a definition that includes young people ranging from 13-24. This broader definition – consistent with what the Province of Alberta is using – is important because it identifies that we are responsible for ensuring that all youth within this age bracket are eligible for support, and that being under 16 or over 18 should not disqualify you, or allow institutions who might say, “We are only responsible for young people up to the age of …” off the hook.

To measure progress 

If we want to measure progress on preventing and ending youth homelessness, we need to agree upon what exactly we are measuring. If one community or jurisdiction uses one definition, and a second community uses another, we cannot compare results. This also goes for research. Clarity and consistency are important.

To support more effective policy responses

Youth homelessness is not simply a term to describe an age category, a way of carving up the population of people who experience homelessness. We need a separate definition to help drive home the point that youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness in terms of its causes and conditions and so must be the solutions. The needs of developing adolescents and young adults, in terms of policy, services and supports – including housing – are unique and distinct. We can’t just take the models of support for adults, change the age mandate, and create “Homelessness Junior”.

This new definition can help us with getting on with the important task of preventing – and eventually ending – youth homelessness in Canada. We CAN end youth homelessness . . . if we want to.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

Add Comment

Recent Tweets

Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License

The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.