Research Matters Blog
The relationship between child welfare systems and homelessness is becoming clearer, with almost 60% of youth who experience homelessness in Canada having had contact with the child welfare system. Inadequate supports through the transition out of care can become a pathway into homelessness for youth.
However, in considering the full family network in the context of child welfare, we can see further links between homelessness and this particular system. In a recent evaluation study of a Housing First program for women that chronically experience homelessness in London, Ontario, we explored histories of trauma. The program participants we interviewed, women who experienced high rates of mental health challenges, problematic substance use, gender-based violence, and relationship breakdown, identified complex histories of trauma. Yet, the foundational trauma that women spoke to over, and over, and over was the trauma of child apprehension.
Women’s homelessness includes unique pathways and unique considerations for support. These considerations may include the importance of safety, the potential need to care for or reconnect with children, risks related to sex work, gender-based violence, barriers in accessing services related to safety, reduced visibility and a disproportionate risk for experiencing poverty in general. However, while some women-specific and mixed-gender services have applied a gender lens in preventing or ending homelessness, evidence on the particularities of these services is only beginning to grow. On identifying grief and loss related to child apprehension in the context of women’s homelessness, we searched across Canada for services supporting this particular concern and found only three.
Therefore, as we recognize International Women’s Day across the world, I would encourage us all to consider the women who are left behind when children are apprehended, and the grief and trauma this experience can cause. This is an important consideration for the homelessness sector both in regards to primary prevention, and in regards to permanent and stable exits from homelessness. Proactively supporting women both to prevent apprehension and to support women through the process should apprehension occur will reduce the likelihood of downstream experiences of homelessness. For those who are already experiencing homelessness, Housing First is a proven model of sustainable exits and includes appropriate supports. For many women, appropriate supports means addressing grief and loss related to children.
Without a doubt, homelessness is a devastating and extremely stressful experience, as basic needs like food, shelter, medical care and safety would be difficult to obtain while unhoused. According to the State of Homelessness 2016, at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year, and 27 percent of them are women. As difficult as homelessness may be for anyone, women face additional challenges that make experiencing homelessness harder.
These are some of the unique challenges faced by women when experiencing homelessness:
Most women and transgender men experiencing homelessness have to deal with periods—a monthly financial burden men don’t have to worry about. Feminine hygiene products, which are necessary purchases, become a splurge for those who are unhoused. Some are forced to choose between pads/tampons and food. In a 2016 report describing how women experiencing homelessness in the U.K. manage their periods, some participants said resorting to toilet paper from public washrooms instead of pads, and another woman reported using an old t-shirt. Homemade alternatives and prolonged use of the same cloth, along with limited access to a washer and dryer, is unsanitary and can cause health issues.
Symptoms that accompany periods are additional challenges women and transgender men face, and unfortunately, homelessness worsens these issues. Limited access to showers, for example, magnifies the “dirty” feeling women get during menstruation. Furthermore, these period symptoms like changes in mood , tiredness and sore muscles can make managing homelessness more difficult. Because of the physical demands of homelessness, with people requiring to move from place to place, accessing different needs like food and shelter—often by foot—becomes challenging when they’re cramping or feeling tired.
Shelters, drop-ins, food banks and multi-service centres provide menstruation products, but there isn't enough to supply demand, and having to constantly ask for or track them down can be frustrating and degrading. Some women from the U.K. study said to be too embarrassed to even ask for them. Homelessness combined with the stigma surrounding menstruation transforms a completely natural and inevitable human process into a dreaded impediment.
Vulnerability and Sexual Abuse
Although anyone experiencing homelessness is vulnerable to violence and danger, women—particularly Indigenous women—and transgender women are more prone to victimization, especially when it comes to sexual abuse and assault. According to a report from Statistics Canada, 22 out of 1,000 Canadians over the age of 15 reported being sexually assaulted in 2014. Victims were more likely to be women, young, Indigenous, homosexual or bisexual, with poorer mental health. Experiencing homelessness also put Canadians at a higher risk. Similarly, a 2011 study based in Vancouver found female youth sex workers were more likely to be Indigenous and experiencing homelessness.
The dangers of survival sex work pose a greater threat to LGBTQ2S women experiencing homelessness. According to a 2015 report, LGBTQ youth in New York are seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to trade sex for accommodation and transgender youth in New York are eight times more likely than non-transgender youth to trade sex for a safe place to stay. In the U.S. as a whole, nearly half of transgender people reported engaging in survival sex while experiencing homelessness.
In a study describing the homelessness experiences of young women in Melbourne, Australia, some participants said to be involved in intimate relationships for personal safety and protection. One woman stayed with her partner because “Melbourne was this really bad place for women. You couldn’t go anywhere on your own because you’d get raped.” If women don’t have the protection a stable intimate relationship can provide, they’re often targets for sexual abuse. One woman said she was no longer allowed to stay in a room rental once her soon-to-be roommate found out she had a boyfriend. Another claimed to have been abused and sexually assaulted 15 times within her first month of homelessness because she didn’t know when men offered her a lift or a place to stay, they weren’t just being nice; they wanted to sleep with her.
Refusing sexual advances severely threatens women’s safety, as the participant earlier described. Another woman from the Melbourne study said she participated in survival sex because she didn’t want to be sexually assaulted. Although she claims she was willing, she only participated when she was threatened with violence, which is still assault. Not only is survival sex dangerous, but being taken advantage of when they’re most vulnerable is downright degrading.
Poor Provision of Sexual Healthcare
According to the experiences of eight young women and transgender women experiencing homelessness in Toronto, healthcare providers often undermine the women’s authority, which makes accessing sexual care difficult. And because of the “slut-shaming” discourse in our society, the women felt ashamed and embarrassed discussing their sexual history, making access to care even harder. Many of the participants described encounters with service providers who were infantilizing and judgmental. For example, one woman described feeling intense pain during sex, but all the doctor did was recommend using more lubricant, even after the woman insisted that wasn’t the issue. Another participant was given a pap smear because they didn’t believe she was a virgin.
LGBTQ2S women’s access to care is possibly more unpleasant. The lesbian-identifying participants in the same study spoke of problematic doctors who supported heteronormativity, or who were ignorant to the specific sexual health needs of LGBTQ2S youth. Because the experiences of LGBTQ2S community are rarely represented in most sex education, they are probably the most in need of advice or support when it comes to safe sex, but unfortunately, the stigma associated with them creates more barriers.
Limited Resources While Pregnant
Poor access to healthcare is even more worrying considering women experiencing homelessness risk an additional consequence of unprotected sex. Apart from risking sexually transmitted diseases, women and transgender men also risk unintended pregnancies. A survey from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Canada (SOGC) found 61% of Canadian women have unintended pregnancies. Even more troubling, young women experiencing homelessness are almost five times more likely to become pregnant and more likely to have multiple pregnancies than young women in housing.
Homelessness is already an extremely difficult experience for one person alone. Having to provide for another will undoubtedly endanger both the baby and mother’s life further. Already competing priorities like access to food, accommodation, safety, proper hygiene or physical and mental health support—all crucial aspects of survival—become more complicated with a child, especially on top of additional priorities like maternal care and parenting support. A 2011 study based in the U.S. found mothers experiencing homelessness were less likely to initiate or continue breastfeeding, and they had less prenatal care and check-ups. Their babies on the other hand had “lower birth weights, a longer hospital stay, and were more likely to receive neonatal intensive care” (a care unit specializing in ill or premature babies). In another American study in 2012, some mothers with custody of their children showed signs of various mental illnesses such as a major depressive episode, lifetime posttraumatic stress disorder and lifetime drug abuse. Half showed signs for lifetime antisocial personality disorder.
It’s important to recognize women have additional challenges when experiencing homelessness. A one-size-fits-all approach to helping those without housing is inadequate, as these challenges significantly shape and impact women’s experience of homelessness. Instead, we need customized policies and strategies that address their unique needs.
Last week’s federal budget, while not as transformative as last year’s, had important new initiatives related to housing and homelessness.
Here are five things to know:
- New housing investments were announced for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. Specifically, last year’s budget announced $600 million over three years for on-reserve housing; $400 million over 10 years for housing in the Inuit regions of Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and Inuvialuit; and $500 million over 10 years for housing for Métis people. In each case, this targeting funding is intended to accompany the respective federal housing strategies for each group, none of which have been released. From an urban perspective – it’s important to remember that, while Indigenous peoples make up just 3% of Calgary’s general population, they make up 20% of Calgary’s homeless population. Several other funding announcements were made for Indigenous peoples, valued at $5 billion over five years. This includes funding for child welfare services, employment and skills training, nursing services in designated First Nations communities, addictions treatment and prevention in First Nations communities, and funding to build administrative and fiscal capacity in First Nations communities.
- This budget announced the further expansion and rebranding of the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB). This is a wage supplement for workers who have a fragile toehold in the labour force. Some readers will recall that the federal government provided a $250 million enhancement to the program in 2016 (to take effect in 2019) in an effort to offset CPP expansion. In the 2017 Fall Economic Statement, the Trudeau government further announced the enhancement of WITB by an additional $500 million annually. This week’s budget announced that, beginning in 2019, this benefit will be known as the Canada Workers Benefit; it will also be more generous. For some workers, this will mean up to an additional $500 annually.
- The budget announced an increase in loans provided via the Rental Constructive Financing Initiative. Over the new three years, the amount of loans available will increase from $2.5 billion to $3.75 billion. According to the budget: “This new funding is intended to support projects that address the needs of modest- and middle-income households struggling in expensive housing markets” (p. 40). The impact of this initiative on homelessness will be indirect at best.
- Canada’s official unemployment rate is now the lowest it’s been in decades. Since November 2015, it’s gone from 7.1% to 5.9%. This strong labour market performance is good for the respective bottom lines of federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments—not only does it mean more tax revenue each year, it also means some social programs (e.g., social assistance) can be drawn on less.
- Canada’s federal debt-to-GDP ratio remains (by far) the lowest of all G7 countries. While our federal government is projecting annual federal deficits in the $10-$20 billion range for at least the next five years, our federal debt-to-GDP ratio remains by far the lowest of all G7 countries. What’s more, our federal government is projecting a further reduction in our federal debt-to-GDP from 30.4% (2017-18) to 28.4% by 2022-23. This favourable macroeconomic context makes it easier for the federal government to invest in important social programs.
In Sum. From the vantage point of Canada’s affordable housing and homelessness sectors, the good news in this budget is its important new funding announcements for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. This investment was announced in a context of low unemployment and an improving macroeconomic context overall. Going forward, I look forward to seeing further details pertaining to the many important initiatives announced in last fall’s National Housing Strategy.
Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale.
The COH’s research and policy stream at CAEH 2018, the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, will provide an opportunity for people with lived experience, academics, students, policymakers and frontline service providers to present their most promising, innovative and relevant research findings. It has been a successful part of the conference and we are looking for new voices to come out and share their work.
Thinking about joining us, but not sure if you’re ready? Here are 5 commonly held myths about presenting at CAEH…. and why they shouldn’t stop you!
You need to be a widely published academic to submit a proposal.
Reality: We are interested in work that’s being done by everyone, not just academics who are formally researching and publishing. The CAEH’s conference goal is to work towards solutions to homelessness, which can come from many different places. Even if you are just starting out, if you have information you think needs to be shared, we want to hear from you!
Ok, but you at least need to be an expert who has all the answers on your topic!
Reality: The focus of your presentation should be how attendees uncover and apply critical content that solves problems you are working on. The idea is to meet people and network your way to a solution. You don’t have to have all the answers - just an open mind to discussing the topic with your audience.
I’m not good at public speaking, what if my presentation doesn’t grab people’s attention?
Reality: As soon as you begin presenting you’ve got the audience’s attention. Starting with an alarming statistic or a dramatic statement may grab attention, but it is not key to sustaining it. It pushes you to lead with your best material – with the risk that your presentation will go downhill from there. In those first few moments, the more important task is to establish rapport with your audience by being yourself.
Alright, but my work doesn’t fit in with presentation styles I’ve seen at past conferences.
Reality: Your presentation does not need to fit traditional conference formats. We are actively looking for new ways to expand how information is shared with our wider community. Check out the presentation formats we suggest, or share a new idea with us.
Ok fine, but I am the only one from my agency that can go to CAEH, and I don’t want to present alone.
Reality: We are here to help! Let us know what is stopping you from participating and we will connect you with a solution. Formats like the debate are a great way to partner with someone else who isn’t currently working with you on the topic. We are open to developing the research stream with your help, so please reach out!
Check out the links below for more info!
As a member of the Making the Shift team, I’ve noticed a curious sort of trend: quite often, when I start talking about the importance of “youth choice” in the context of youth homelessness service delivery, people falter. It seems to me that many people are intrigued by the idea in theory but then get stuck on how it could possibly work out in practice. And I can understand that – it’s not opposition to young people having choices, it’s just hard to picture how it would work: What choices would youth be making? How would options be presented to them? Wouldn’t this just slow down the service system more? These – and other concerns along similar lines – are important questions to ask ourselves, as long as we don’t let our underlying concerns overpower the potential to dramatically improve the lives of young people.
For anyone who has been following along in this blog series, you’ll probably recognize “youth choice” as a Core Principle in the Housing First for Youth ethos. For any new readers (welcome!) or anyone who needs a refresher, let’s take a closer look at what we’re talking about here.
What do we mean by “Youth Choice”?
To be frank, youth choice is exactly what it sounds like: young people having the opportunity to make decisions that are pertinent to their own lives. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Of course, it gets more complicated when applied to young people who are vulnerable to, or experiencing, homelessness; these youth may not be given many chances to make decisions. This may arise from an existing service system that was not designed to emphasize choice, or from a possible habit among adults to infantilize younger adults and adolescents – which can manifest in the widely-held assumption that youth can’t make their own decisions, or won’t make ones that are positive and in their “best interests.” Young people are just as deserving as their older counterparts to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have their rights upheld. Not only that, but decisions made and driven by youth are bound to be impactful, as youth can draw on their own experiences and knowledge about what they need. Young people have a right to voice their preferences and choose options that work best for them; after all, they know themselves best! This can lead to greater success, since youth are more likely to be invested in following through on choices they are involved in, and that they believe will work for them.
Part of why youth choice is so important is that it helps youth develop critical thinking skills that are essential to adult life. Choices can only really be made when youth are informed, so it is necessary to support them to retain the necessary knowledge and critical thinking to be able to make an informed decision. This could be anything from providing background information on a topic, to weighing in on pros-and-cons, to advising a youth about what choice you would make in their position and why. It can also be supporting youth in making a decision that you don’t necessarily agree with.
This brings us to a fundamental pillar of youth choice: youth must lead the work. They are the ones to choose when they are ready to begin specific services, what issues they want to work on first (or at all), and who they want to be involved in their journey. This last point can be most clearly seen in family and natural supports work, where young people decide for themselves who counts as family and who does not, regardless of biological ties. It is highly likely that youth will want to work on one challenge, or with one support, a time, building their skills and resilience over time to tackle larger challenges. This process will need to take place within a context of safety and support for the youth.
Limits to Youth Choice
One huge caveat here is the fact that there are limits to youth choice, as there are for everyone else making choices. It’s important to not mistake choices with desires or wishes; just because a youth wants something does not mean they will automatically get it. Choices have to be curbed to realistic and attainable options. For example, a young person’s “choice” to live in their own apartment without roommates in the most expensive area in town is likely not an attainable option. Instead, one might encourage them to consider living with roommates or expanding their search to more affordable neighbourhoods. The essential part is that they are still involved in making the choices, as long as such choices are appropriate for them to make.
Appropriateness is one of the limits to choice that are common among the youth population; factors like age, stage of development, and any potential delays must be considered. While we say “youth,” the reality is that there is quite an age gap between young teenagers and early twenty-somethings. What’s appropriate for a young teen may not be the same as what’s appropriate for a young adult; as young people age and mature, they should be encouraged to take on more of their own decisions. Every individual matures in different ways, so there are no set rules for choice related to age.
Limits related to potential developmental or cognitive delays are trickier to pin down, but are so important to think about – even though a youth might be a certain age, their cognitive abilities may be different than their peers. This certainly will impact the types of choices that young people can make. However, care must still be taken to ensure that youth are involved in decision-making in their own lives.
How Can Youth Choice Be Implemented Practically and Effectively?
When we talk about youth choice, it is often in the context of service delivery – that youth are to take part in choosing services they may require and where they would like to receive said services. This is a great place to start because it is relatively simple to ease elements of youth choice into existing service delivery models. Youth can actively engage in setting their own goals and contribute to developing programs they feel will benefit them, for example. In housing programs, youth can explore the different models of accommodation (transitional housing, supportive housing, scatter-site, etc.) and consider which option they would prefer. When developing new programs for youth, it is crucial that flexibility is built into the design so youth would be able to join or leave the program as they choose.
It is important to note that, in a practical sense, youth must have the freedom to change their mind after making a decision and to try something else. As discussed earlier, young people are developing their decision-making (and life) skills and so they will need some space to make mistakes and learn from them. Not everyone will get it right on their first try and that’s okay! Failure is a natural part of life and we all experience it. Encouragement from supportive adults can help a youth learn from a setback or failure and develop their personal coping skills and resiliency.
So, after this careful study of what youth choice is, isn’t, and could be, what are we left with? Hopefully, with the sense that youth choice is not daunting or overwhelming, and, far more importantly, that it is achievable – and even desirable – to implement across youth-serving systems. There are so many benefits to including youth in decision-making processes, both at the individual level (such as building life skills and resiliency) and the systems level (such as increasing youth engagement en masse) that, it would honestly be tough to list them all here. If nothing else, implementing a youth choice policy is an excellent and clear example of respecting youth as autonomous beings who are capable of making choices; specifically, choices that they determine are best for themselves and their own needs.
The “THIS is” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the fifth installment in the blog series; click to read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.
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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.