What would it take, and how do we get there? Youth Homelessness Prevention in Canada

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University
February 08, 2018

Today we launch the results of a national consultation on youth homelessness prevention, What Would it Take? Youth Across Canada Speak Out on Youth Homelessness Prevention. Over the last six months, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness worked with agencies across the country to ask young people with lived experience of homelessness:

  • What would have prevented your homelessness?
  • What programs, policies, services, and supports are needed to prevent youth homelessness?
  • What do you want to tell the Canadian government about preventing youth homelessness?
  • How do you want to be involved in making change on this issue? 

Most importantly, we asked youth: what would it take to prevent youth homelessness in Canada, and how do we get there?

Youth had a lot to say. In fact, they had so much to say that we had to create a document over 100 pages in length (rather than the 20-page document we planned for!). What youth had to say is innovative. It is inspiring. It is heartbreaking. It takes your breath away. And it makes one thing crystal clear: we have to change our approach to youth homelessness, and we have to change it now.

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Here are 5 things we learned from youth across Canada:

1. We must adopt a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to youth homelessness.

In communities across Canada, we continue to respond to youth homelessness only after a young person is on the streets. In fact, in many cases, we often don’t even respond then. Young people across Canada told us that even after they became homeless, they couldn’t get help due to lack of available services and housing, long waitlists, not qualifying for services, discrimination, or simply because they were told they weren’t “in need enough” to receive help. Two Edmonton youth posed crucial questions about this approach, questions we didn’t have an answer for. They ask:

“If you are sleeping outside, in the middle of – like, why does it have to get THAT BAD before you qualify for help that you could have used like a year ago?”  

“Maybe you should help them when they are on the verge of becoming homeless, or they’re well on the way, and they’re seeking the help beforehand. Instead of, like, when their bank account is zero and they’re on the street, and THEN you help them. Why didn’t you do it when they had a few dollars and a couple of days left? Why couldn’t you do it then?” 

Youth were clear – we are waiting too long to intervene when a young person is at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness. Youth showed us that, by building a response that is primarily reactive, we not only condemn youth to hardship and trauma, we actually ensure it. In order to end youth homelessness, we need to adopt a proactive approach. A proactive approach means we intervene earlier, faster, and more effectively when a young person is at risk of homelessness, and we support youth to transition quickly out of homelessness.

Youth explained that in order to make this shift, we need:

(1) Effective prevention and early intervention programs and interventions within public systems like education, child welfare, and criminal justice;

(2) A reconfiguration of the youth homelessness sector in order to adopt a preventative approach to supporting youth at risk of homelessness and experiencing homelessness;

(3) Dramatic increases in investments to the social welfare state (e.g., investments in affordable housing, rent subsidies, social assistance, disability support programs) in order to ensure all young people and their families can thrive in their communities;

(4) The removal of barriers to accessing services, supports, benefits, and housing for youth and their families; and

(5) The dismantling of inequitable, discriminatory, and colonial practices, policies, and value systems in all parts of Canadian society.

2. We must reconfigure public systems (e.g., education, child welfare, healthcare) to help prevent youth from experiencing homelessness. This must involve addressing systems failures that trap youth and their families in poverty and homelessness.

Consultations with youth revealed the crucial importance that other systems play in their paths into, and out of, homelessness. Most youth traced the origins of their homelessness back to systems failures - inadequate policy and service delivery within public systems. These failures took various forms in youth’s lives, including:

  • Youth being transitioned out of the child welfare system with little income or supports, and no plan to support the transition to independent living
  • Youth under 16 being barred from accessing mental health or addiction services without parental signatures 
  • Youth being removed from housing, supports, or services when they couldn’t meet the requirement that they participate in education or employment in order access help
  • Youth being barred from accessing services or housing because they were not “homeless enough” to qualify for help (e.g., had not been homeless for more than 3 months)
  • Youth struggling to navigate complex and confusing bureaucratic requirements to access services, including difficulties obtaining necessary documents (e.g., reference letters, ID, citizenship documents)

Youth described these system failures as trapping them and their families in cycles of poverty and homelessness. Two youth commented:

“If you don’t have ID, you can’t sometimes get work, and you can’t make money to buy an ID, to get work, and to get a home.”- Edmonton Youth

Education is hard to get because housing is hard to get. What’s easy is being a prostitute and selling drugs.” – Calgary Youth

Our conversations with youth indicate that many of the personal and interpersonal challenges we identify as risk factors – such as family conflict or health challenges – often become pathways into homelessness when systems failures occur. Youth explained that if they had been provided with access to the right supports and services, they would not have experienced homelessness. Given this, it’s not surprising that many youth felt that system change is where youth homelessness prevention efforts could be most effective. 

If we are serious about youth homelessness prevention, we need to get serious about tackling the ways that public systems contribute to homelessness for young people. Youth across Canada are pleading that we act now to address system failures, and to more effectively coordinate systems in order to increase the speed and efficacy of service delivery.  

3. Professionals in all public systems must ensure their conduct and behaviours do not contribute to homelessness for young people. This means that all system workers need the supports, resources, infrastructure, and training to actively participate in youth homelessness prevention.  

Many youth could look back on their lives and pinpoint the key moment that the right supports or interventions could have changed their path into homelessness. And in fact, many reached out for help during those moments – asking a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a caseworker, or a doctor for help. For too many, however, these interactions failed them. A crucial finding of this study was the frequency with which youth’s experiences of violence, discrimination, homelessness, abuse, and neglect were ignored or discounted by the very people they thought would help them. In many cases youth felt further marginalized, traumatized, and isolated because of these interactions. Some felt they became homeless as a direct result of professionals’ behaviours. In focus groups across the country, we heard:

Youth were mocked for calling the police when they experienced family violence.

Youth were silenced when they reported abuse in their foster homes.

Youth were stigmatized by teachers for their mental health issues.

Youth were kicked out of services because of their sexuality or gender expression.

Youth were ignored when they said their home or building was unsafe.

We believe youth. We believe we can do better. And we believe that professionals want the resources and tools to do so. These findings remind us that young people primarily engage with systems through the professionals that work within them. This means that while system change it crucial to youth homelessness prevention, it must be accompanied by changes in approach and practice at the frontlines as well. We need to better understand the factors that contribute to professionals’ behaviours in these instances. These dynamics may be driven by inadequate funding, unmanageable caseloads, poor training and supervision, or policies over which they have little control.

As we move towards youth homelessness prevention, it is essential that we scale up, scale out, and scale deep (as Melanie Redman of A Way Home Canada often says). This means that we must simultaneously make changes at broad policy levels, foster change across all systems and communities, and ensure frontline workers have the tools, training, supports, and workload to engage in this shift. It is essential that, at a societal level, we are able to provide professionals with resources they need to really make a difference youth’s lives: free family counselling and mediation, safe youth housing, liveable social assistance rates for families, or foster homes within a young person’s community and culture.

4. We cannot prevent and end youth homelessness without reckoning with colonialism.

Indigenous youth viewed their experiences of homelessness as part of the long legacy of colonial violence and marginalization experienced by their families, communities, and Peoples. Rather than an abstract or secondary contributor to homelessness, many Indigenous youth described colonization as the direct cause of their homelessness. One youth from Vancouver commented:

“Colonization, like, if that didn’t happen, I feel like I would be so good.” 

To tackle youth homelessness in Canada, we must reckon with colonialism. This must involve a significant redistribution of resources and power in Canadian society. Youth described how severely underfunded housing, education, and social services are within many Indigenous communities and reserves, with many even lacking access to clean drinking water. Youth described racism towards Indigenous Peoples as extremely common, contributing to poverty and homelessness by blocking access to the benefits, supports, services, and rights that many other young people are able to access. This racism was viewed as happening at all levels of society, taking such forms as landlord discrimination, staff or worker racism in the child welfare system, and police practices that target and criminalize Indigenous Peoples. Importantly, youth framed these inequities as human rights violations. We must be bold in our efforts to rectify these injustices. Youth explained that youth homelessness prevention must be grounded in a respect for the autonomy, self-governance, and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples. 

Youth also discussed the importance of providing opportunities for Indigenous youth to reconnect to their history, culture, ancestry, and traditions. This finding echoes the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, which articulates that Indigenous homelessness often involves isolation from “relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages, and identities” (Thistle, 2017, p.6). Young people felt that a unique homelessness prevention strategy is needed for Indigenous youth, and that all levels of government must be responsible for ensuring that no Indigenous youth experience homelessness.

5. We must provide youth with the power, supports, compensation, and opportunities to lead a shift towards youth homelessness prevention in Canada.

Let’s be honest – we have made insufficient progress on youth homelessness in Canada over the last several decades. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps a key reason is that we haven’t been listening to the real experts – young people who have lived it. Our consultations across the country suggest that few youth had been given opportunities to engage in policy change or share their experiences and insights with decision makers. What Would it Take? aims to amplify the voices of these young people, centering these youth as the experts that should drive policy and practice change. It is our responsibility to find ways to center youth in this shift to prevention and compensate them for their contributions. Youth not only know what supports are necessary and how systems have failed them, they have concrete and innovative solutions to offer.

Read more in What Would it Take? Youth Across Canada Speak Out on Youth Homelessness Prevention

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the young people with lived experience of homelessness for taking part and lending their voices to this study. We hope that youth’s insights, wisdom, and passion for change will guide policy and practice reform across the country. 

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We would like to acknowledge that this research was made possible through financial support provided by The Home Depot Canada Foundation (THDCF). This research would not have been possible without the dedicated work of many youth-serving agencies across the country, all of whom actively engaged young people to conduct the focus groups. We would like to thank SKETCH Working Arts (Toronto, ON), Dans la Rue (Montreal, QC), SideDoor (Yellowknife, NT), Broadway Youth Resource Centre (Vancouver, BC), Hamilton Indian Regional Centre (HIRC), Choices for Youth (NL), Homeward Trust (Edmonton, AB), Calgary Homeless Foundation (Calgary, AB), United Way Kamloops (Kamloops, BC), Boys and Girls Club of Kamloops (Kamloops, BC), Wyndham House (Guelph, ON), and Cornerstone Landing Youth Services (Lanark County, ON).

Kaitlin completed her PhD in Social Work at the University of Toronto where her research focused on Canadian homelessness, activism, and social change. She recently joined the COH team at York University as a postdoctoral fellow. Her postdoctoral work focuses on knowledge mobilization and research impact in the area of homelessness.

Kaitlin has worked on research teams addressing a range of social justice issues, including gender equity, cyber bullying, sex trafficking, arts-based programming with youth experiencing homelessness, and social assistance in Canada’s North. Using her background in the arts, Kaitlin also runs jewelry making workshops for women experiencing homelessness and owns a jewelry company called Fierce Deer, through which she employs folks who face barriers to entering the work force.

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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.