Research Matters Blog
Some might think it a bit extreme to push a shopping cart across the entire country through every kind of season and weather, but Joe Roberts believes that we have to do “whatever it takes” to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada.
Joe started his campaign a number of years ago with a trial run, where he walked from Calgary to Vancouver. After that, he knew it was possible to actualize his vision to push a modified shopping cart, often a symbol of homelessness, across Canada. Joe and his campaign team set out from Newfoundland on May 1, 2016 and concluded this epic journey in British Columbia just last week on Friday, September 29. A Way Home Canada’s team was there to celebrate this feat, along with team members from Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Raising the Roof (our partners in delivering The Upstream Project, supported in part by The Push for Change).
When I first met Joe and his wife Marie, who is also the campaign director for The Push, I knew that they understood something fundamental about youth homelessness. They could see that as a complex, fusion policy issue, the only effective response is to build a movement that works across the systems that drive young people into homelessness, and that by necessity, must be part of the solutions. Back then, A Way Home was only in its formative stage, but we could easily see that The Push for Change would be an important coalition member in our efforts to elevate this issue and begin to invest in prevention. With every kilometer walked, with every community or school engagement along the way, Joe and the campaign team did just that—helped us build this growing movement for change.
The Push for Change campaign covered over 9,100 kilometers and participated in more than 400 community and school events since May, 2016. After such an incredible journey, you might think Joe is ready to take a break, but Joe and Marie are working with us to plan the future of The Push for Change, and have already invested heavily in a legacy of youth homelessness prevention. One of the most effective engagement strategies has involved both trade unions and police. The support from these entities across the country has set the stage for future partnership on the issue.
The Push for Change shows us that anything is possible and confirms what Dr. Stephen Gaetz always says: we can end youth homelessness in Canada, if we want to.
What happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Surprisingly, while there have been many studies on what drives young people to the streets and what keeps them there, there have been very few studies designed to follow young people in their journey off the streets.
In March 2015, I began 10 months of intense field work, hanging out with nine young people who had recently left the shelter system in Toronto, Canada and moved into market rent housing. My goal was relatively simple: I wanted formerly homeless young people to help me understand what kinds of things they needed in order to achieve meaningful social integration. In other words, if our society is a big circle and the young people were standing on the edge, how can we help them move inside the circle and feel like they belong?
All of the young people who participated in the study were living in Toronto and paying market rent prices. Most lived alone in rooming houses or basement suites. The majority were unemployed and receiving welfare supplements. Six of the young people had completed high school, which is significant given only about 35% of young people experiencing homelessness in Canada have completed high school (Gaetz, O’Grady, Kidd, & Schwan, 2016).
Most of the young people were enrolled in the study for six to nine months. During that time, we would meet one-on-one, every other week, wherever it was convenient for them to meet. We would meet at their new homes or close by most of the time, but sometimes they would take me to other places like their schools, places of employment, where they grew up, or places they liked to hang out. I purposely did not use a car during the study because I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to navigate a city of 2.8 million people on foot or public transit in all different kinds of weather. By the end of the study, I had met with most participants 13 to 19 times.
As I conducted my fieldwork, I saw first-hand how social structures can be oppressive, positioning people in ways that make it remarkably challenging to move forward, despite the outside appearance of housing stability.
Three major findings emerged from the study:
1. Chronic precarity
- All of the young people lived below the poverty line for the entire study with most existing on welfare supplements of less than $8,000/year. After paying rent and purchasing a transit pass, most were left with just $36.00/month.
- Even though most of the youth had graduated from high school, the only jobs that were available to them were part-time, minimum wage, seemingly dead-end jobs. And when they did start working, welfare would claw back their meager incomes.
- Mainstream connections to people who could help participants get ahead vs. get by were either non-existent or extremely limited.
2. Identity evolution
- The young people were eager to distance themselves from identities of homelessness and wanted to be seen as responsible, competent emerging adults. Unfortunately, many of the supports available to them were located in homeless shelters, reminding them of their old identities as homeless youth.
- Participants’ identities were fragile because they were mostly linked to tangible things that could easily be taken away (like their homes). Participants had limited intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy.
3. Mastery and control undermined
- The young people used up most of their energy on day-to-day survival instead of long-term planning. Limited intangible identity-based assets meant the young people became easily discouraged and exhausted.
- Being unable to participate financially in our consumer-oriented culture made the young people feel even more inadequate.
- Ironically, the move away from the shelter and into mainstream society highlighted to participants that life was going to be much more challenging for them than for other young people the same age.
The Hamster Wheel of Poverty
I sketched this picture one day, when I was having trouble representing my findings through words. The person in the picture is housed, but is trapped in a “hamster wheel” of poverty, not moving forward despite spinning. The coloured sections inside the wheel are meant to depict the game spinner from the popular Game of Life board game representing that, for the study participants, successful outcomes in the mainstream seemed more up to chance rather than something they could control.
The young people who participated in this research showed me how challenging it can be for formerly homeless youth to move beyond day-to-day survival even after they obtain housing. Given most young people leaving homelessness will eventually end up in market rent accommodations, we need to pay attention to the findings from this study. If we truly want to prevent homelessness from reoccurring, we must provide youth leaving homelessness with all the resources and opportunities they need to integrate into the mainstream. These include:
- Subsidized housing
- Moving transition-related supports to less stigmatizing locations
- More opportunities to earn a living wage
- Free post-secondary education with no welfare claw backs
- Subsidized or free transit passes
- Outreach staff training on enhancing intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy
- A concerted effort to connect formerly homeless young people with those in much better socioeconomic circumstances
So what happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Well, according to the results from this study, most live a precarious existence, not really feeling like they belong, and one small misstep away from ending up homeless again. We must move beyond defining success for young people experiencing homelessness as the attainment of market rent housing and a minimum wage job or welfare supplements. These amazing young people deserve the same things we want for our own children – a life filled with purpose and meaning, and a chance to belong.
A Critical Examination of Homeless Youth Transitions to Independent Housing: Youth Perspectives on Homelessness Prevention is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca.
Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Kidd, S., & Schwan, K. (2016). Without a home: The national youth homelessness survey. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
More than 850,000 people turn to food banks to make ends meet every month, according to Food Banks Canada. This means each month, too many Canadians are forced to choose between buying groceries and paying the rent, when no one should have to make such a choice.
When talking about hunger, it’s important to note that “hunger” and “food insecurity” carry two very different meanings. Hunger refers to the physiological state of pain and weakness an individual experiences as a result of a lack of food. On the other hand, food insecurity is a state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited. Food insecurity, whether chronic, seasonal or temporary, leads to serious nutritional consequences and negative health outcomes. The individual-level physiological experience of hunger is closely tied to, and often results from, food insecurity.
There is currently a growing movement to raise awareness about the solvable problem of hunger in Canada. Last week marked Hunger Awareness Week, where food banks across the country host events to tell the stories of their work and of those who use food banks.
Hunger from a global perspective
Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity and hunger; hunger exists because poverty exists.
World hunger, after a decade-long decline, spiked last year. Despite the UN’s goal of eliminating global hunger by 2030, 11 % of the world’s population experienced hunger every day in 2016. This is the first time there has been increase in world hunger since the turn of the century.
According to the UN’s The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in 2017 report, both conflict and climate change are key drivers of food insecurity. Of the 815 million chronically food-insecure and malnourished people in the world, the vast majority – 489 million people –live in countries affected by conflict.
Who uses food banks in Canada?
Canadians who visit food banks come from all backgrounds. They include families with children, individuals living on social assistance or fixed income, and employed people whose low wages do not cover basic living essentials. The latest Hunger Count captured a snapshot of food bank users in Canada:
- Across the country, children and youth are overrepresented among people helped by food banks; while people under age 18 account for 19% of the Canadian population, they make up 36% of individuals receiving food assistance.
- Families with children make up nearly half of households helped by food banks. Lone-parent households and their children are still one of Canada's most economically vulnerable groups. Though they make up only 10% of all Canadian households, they account for 22% of food bank users.
- While 7% of households helped by food banks have no income at all, food bank use is high among both working and unemployed Canadians. In fact, 1 in 6 households helped by food banks are currently or recently employed. Additionally, many people are struggling on fixed incomes:
- 45% of households assisted are on social assistance
- 18% receive disability-related income supports
- 8% receive the majority of their income from a pension.
- Single people make up 28% of all Canadian households, but account for 44% of households helped by food banks, an increase from 39% in 2008.
- Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity; nearly half of food bank clients in Canada receive welfare as welfare rates in Canada fall below the poverty line and do not ensure food security. Additionally, 13% of people helped by food banks are immigrants and refugees.
- People that receive disability support are another large group of food bank clients, accounting for one in five households helped by food banks as disability support is often not enough to help clients feed themselves.
- Currently, seniors account for 4.3% of food bank users. Canada has a rapidly aging society and life expectancy is increasing. If current disability programs and rates do not improve there is an expected rise in food insecurity for this demographic.
It should be noted the national picture of food bank use tends to be strongly influenced by the larger urban centres like Toronto, which can obscure the reality in small towns. Hunger is a reality for tens of thousands of the Canada’s rural residents as well. In small towns and rural areas, people accessing food banks tend to be slightly older and slightly more likely to be living on a pension. Moreover, the proportion of Indigenous Peoples accessing food banks in rural areas, at 29% of the total, is significantly higher than the national average.
Hunger and malnutrition
As food is one of the most flexible household expenses, and it is often nutrition that suffers when money is tight. When resources for food become scarce and people’s means to access nutritious food diminish, they often rely on less-healthy, denser food choices that can lead to overweight and obesity. Therefore, food insecurity and obesity often co-exist. Many countries still face high levels of undernutrition, but they are now also experiencing an increasing burden of people suffering from obesity and diabetes.
Additionally, food insecurity and poor nutrition during pregnancy and childhood are associated with metabolic adaptations that increase the risk of numerous negative outcomes, including impaired cognitive ability, weakened performance at school and obesity in later life.
Initiatives to reduce the need for food banks
Hunger, as a symptom of poverty, is a structural problem; the world produces enough food to feed everyone. Sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty require a mix of system-based policies aimed at improving the incomes and income security of poor Canadians, such as raising social assistance rates and minimum wages, improving access to employment insurance and developing a national child care system.
To significantly reduce the need for food banks in Canada, the Hunger Count report recommends a national poverty strategy, a basic liveable income and new investments in Northern food security.
The federal government is currently developing the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, to reduce poverty and improve the economic well being of all Canadian families. To learn more about the plans, including consultations with Canadians across the country and establishing a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Poverty, visit canada.ca.
“I… ended up homeless as a consequence of the Sixties Scoop. Going through the Scoop left me wondering which world or culture I belonged in: white Canadian or First Nations community. I was torn between the two. It has had a very damaging effect on me; society told me you’re brown on the outside and white in the middle (as I was brought up in a white home). I was confused and lost, and it was this path that ultimately led me to my life on the streets. My confusion about my identity… was very damaging.”
Tle’min Elder from the Sliammon First Nation
Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle, 28
Rose’s quote speaks to a kind of cultural homelessness endured by Indigenous Peoples that is hard to quantify in current understandings of homelessness as outlined by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’s Canadian definition of homelessness: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally sheltered, and at risk of homelessness. This is because she is describing something that isn’t about being without a structure of habitation or brick and mortar home. Rose’s homelessness, rather, is about something much deeper: existing in the world without a meaningful sense of home or identity. Rose’s eventual unsheltered houselessness in adulthood, as she articulates, happened as a result of the cultural homelessness she endured since being placed in a “white” home at age 8. This traumatic childhood dislocation from her Sliammon people left her without Indigenous identity, language, kin, culture, and connection to her traditional lands. If we really listen to her words carefully, then, it is clear that, as Rose understands it, she became homeless in childhood—the houselessness she endured in adulthood was only a symptom of that earlier loss of Indigenous culture and kin.
Here again we see that Joe’s experience digs much deeper than simply having nowhere to live. To him and other Indigenous Peoples, their homelessness began when they lost an Indigenous cosmology and sense of belonging within an Indigenous community. The later houselessness that spawn from this disconnection would not have happened, I theorize, if they had been spiritually grounded since childhood. Further, the dislocation of “spirit” also creates within those who suffer its terrible affects, an imbalance of healthy mental faculties, which later manifests into readable psychological disorders from repeated bouts of trauma, racism, and exclusion. These leave sufferers feeling like they don’t belong anywhere, or can’t navigate society, feeling like they never have the right conditions to survive, or have a mind wracked by traumatic memories, and are never centered and confident in their daily lives. To Joe and others like him, then, their homelessness was also about mental imbalance, loss of kin, no meaningful connection to land, and having nowhere to go after aging out of the “system.” It’s not, according to Joe, simply about being unhoused.
Cree Althea Guiboche (the Bannock Lady of Winnipeg), is the pride of her community and of many Indigenous Nations. She goes out weekly with her organization Got Bannock and feeds Winnipeg’s homeless population. She and her “Bannock Army” whip up thousands of sandwiches, soups, juice boxes, fruits and veggies, and of course bannock and hand them out to lines of homeless that sometimes stretch around three city blocks! She does this to reclaim the Village Indigenous Peoples once had before the harmful effects of colonialism; she does it to build community relations. What many do not know, however, is that Althea herself suffered a bout of homelessness in 2011 after she and her five children were flooded out of their home in Ochre River after the province of Manitoba built a levee in an effort to prevent the flooding of the city of Winnipeg. The levee caused water levels to rise in the Dauphin Lake region. Left homeless in the aftermath of the flood, Althea’s family petitioned the provincial government and various emergency service providers for housing but were left out in the cold—they were all homeless. These agencies, it seems, did not have adequate emergency plans in place to deal with such an immediate crisis, and the different crisis agencies did not communicate effectively with one another. Moreover, the service providers Althea communicated with were, according to her, racist and placed her case at the bottom of a long list of priorities. Guiboche was then passed around like a hot potato, from bureaucracy to bureaucracy while her family’s homelessness worsened. The dual combo of flooding and bureaucratic obstacles, then, caused her homelessness, as it has with many Indigenous Peoples who’ve also tried to access unprepared services after major environmental disasters. Althea’s unique kind of homelessness, sadly, has affected vast swaths of Indigenous Peoples across Canada—from the repeated floods of the James Bay lowlands, to the 2017 summer fires of BC and the 2016 inferno of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, to the rising sea levels in the North. The “system,” it seems, is not built, or is unwilling, to house large populations of displaced Indigenous Peoples in crisis situations.
The above three examples of homelessness are specific to Indigenous Peoples in that they fall outside the scale of unhoused homelessness as defined by the COH’s Canadian definition of homelessness. Rose endured cultural homelessness since youth, Joe was spiritually homelessness after being separated from Creator through abuse, and Althea suffered emergency crisis homelessness caused by bureaucratic confusion and internal racism latent in emergency service providers.
These examples, and many more like them, have appeared again and again in the work I’ve done with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities over the past 22 months of consultation in building the National Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada for the COH. In many ways, my own understanding of homeless has broadened after hearing them. I am now convinced that from an Indigenous perspective, Indigenous homelessness is not about not having a structure to live in; it runs much deeper than that—it’s about not having healthy social, physical, spiritual, and emotional relationships. It’s about not having one’s indigeneity. And these relationships—known in the Anishinabek worldviews as All My Relations—have been eroded and/or destroyed by processes of colonization since Euro-style settlement began on Turtle Island in the 1600s. But I reveal too much, too soon, and for some, it will be a total “game changer” in the way that we think, look at, and treat, not only Indigenous homelessness, but also how we understand elder homelessness, youth homelessness, veteran’s homelessness, and homelessness in general. It will, from the little feedback I’ve received thus far, reframe the discussion of homelessness itself.
If you are interested in knowing more, please join me at the CAEH conference in Winnipeg on Thursday October 26, 2017 where I, along with the COH, will launch the new Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada during my keynote address. One last thought before I go, please know that the information I’ve shared with you here comes, not for me, but directly from Indigenous Peoples themselves—they’ve always known the kinds of homelessness they’ve had to endure, I simply asked them what they believed Indigenous Homelessness to be, and they told me.
To join us in Winnipeg on Oct. 27 for an Indigenous Roundtable on defining an end to homelessness, please apply here by Sept. 29: bit.ly/2gH3ANN
CBC News. (2011, June 7). Flooding forces evacuations in Dauphin Lake. CBC News, Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/flooding-forces-evacuations-in-dauphin-lake-1.1085248
Homeward Trust Edmonton, Blue Quills First Nations College, & IRM Research and Evaluation. (2015). Research on the Intergenerational Impact of Colonialism: Aboriginal Homelessness in Edmonton – Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Indigenous Experience of Urban Homelessness. Edmonton: Homeward Trust.
Memmott, P., Long, S., & Chambers, C. (2003). Categories of Indigenous' homelessness' people and good practice responses to their needs. Retrieved from https://www.ahuri.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/2113/AHURI_Final_Report_No49_Categories_of_Indigenous_homeless_people_and_good_practice_responses.pdf
Rose Henry, “My Life Story, My Youth,” pp. 25-34 and Joseph R. A. Motuz, “Anatomy of A Hero,” 65-72 in Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle. Toronto: York University Press, 2014. http://homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/Homelessness%20Is%20Only%20One%20Piece%20Of%20My%20Puzzle%20-%20Web%20V2_0.pdf
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. (2012). Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/COHhomelessdefinition.pdf
Today, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness are releasing a revised version of our federal youth homelessness policy brief. Opportunities to influence public policy and investment concerning youth homelessness abound.
As described in previous blog posts, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness take a “solutions-focused advocacy” approach to working with government. This approach necessitates a rich process of engagement that foregrounds youth with lived experience and other key stakeholders, both within and outside of government. It means mining innovations in both policy and practice from around the world, as well as here at home. Most importantly, it is an exercise in deep listening that enables us to craft a vision for our collective role in preventing and ending youth homelessness. We believe that the Government of Canada, through the renewal of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), has an opportunity to play a leadership role on the issue of youth homelessness. This policy brief provides a roadmap for the Government of Canada to follow.
If you’ll recall, we released a policy brief in April, 2016 that focused on translating the recently-announced investment in youth homelessness in the U.S. to the Canadian context. At that time, we noted that over the past 16 years, the Government of Canada, through its National Homelessness Initiative and the HPS, has actively supported communities across the country to address homelessness. While many communities have used part of their federal investment to support youth-focused programs and services, there has not been a strategic focus on youth homelessness since the early years of the program.
Key components of our federal policy brief refresh include recommendations that expand and enhance HPS with a core component of the strategy focusing on supporting Housing First for Youth and youth homelessness prevention through community systems planning. Youth under the age of 25 require programs and services that address their unique developmental needs and issues. Additionally, the brief outlines that the resources provided at the federal level need to be flexible, meaningful, and timely to be client-driven and meet each young person’s needs within their local context.
Some key points include:
Priority must be given to prevention programs that divert and keep young people out of shelters and provide them with appropriate and adequate supports. Youth-specific prevention programs focus upstream to intervene well before a youth becomes homeless.
Without proper exit planning and supports, youth leaving corrections, physical/ mental health, and child welfare systems may also find themselves without a home.
Adapting Housing First to the needs of youth is critical for their housing success and a healthy transition to adulthood.
The vision of a distinct, youth-focused funding stream through the HPS focuses on four strategies:
Community Planning and Systems Coordination
HPS designated communities must begin to align and organize themselves around the issue of youth homelessness. Communities can’t simply respond to youth homelessness in the same way they respond to homelessness in general. An integrated response to youth engages child welfare, youth justice systems, education and income supports systems which means designated communities must leverage different stakeholders.
Central to the HPS renewal should be program models that will enable communities to
make the shift to an approach that focuses more on prevention and helping young people exit homelessness. The proposed program interventions are based on research from Canada and elsewhere in the world (the U.S., UK, Australia and Scotland in particular). Many of these program models have a strong evidence base, while others are promising practices. These models can be applied in urban, suburban, rural and remote communities.
Governance and Structure
Federal leadership, direction and investment on the issue of youth homelessness can yield significant policy and practice changes provincially and territorially. This will create the context for greater alignment of policy and funding, sharing of practices and creating a pan-Canadian strategy. The goal of an Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT)
Youth Homelessness Committee would be to align mandates across all provinces to promote increased focus and a more integrated response to youth homelessness and collaborate/support initiatives that contribute to the renewed HPS youth specific outcomes, performance measures and data demographics. In addition the FPT Committee would strengthen the ability of existing systems to intervene in a rapid, coordinated manner before youth become entrenched in a homeless lifestyle and bring government and community stakeholders together to support and enable community-driven responses and client-centered approaches to addressing homelessness.
Data Collection and Research
We have a significant opportunity to resolve the information gaps that currently make it challenging to understand and address youth homelessness. Better data and information on the issue of youth homelessness in Canada is a priority, as is evaluating methods of effective implementation, and the effectiveness of services and systems. Improving the collection of information will allow us to better respond to the following questions:
What are effective strategies for implementing and scaling evidence based and supported interventions for homeless youth?
What systems would support the implementation of common databases and metrics to enhance evaluation efforts nationally?
What is the composition and size of the homeless youth population in Canada?
As we’ve shown with the success of A Way Home Canada and the emergence of A Way Home coalitions in countries and communities around the world, Canada can be a world leader concerning youth homelessness. Most importantly, Canada can help ensure that every young person has the support they need to have a healthy transition to adulthood and the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Read more: homelesshub.ca/opportunityknocks
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.