Unconventional Lives with Conventional Dreams: An Examination of the Formal and Informal Work Intersect Among Homeless Ottawa Youth

Unconventional Lives with Conventional Dreams: An Examination of the Formal and Informal Work Intersect Among Homeless Ottawa Youth

The goal of this research is to understand how work (both formal and informal) is situated within the lives of homeless youth and how this intersect is affected by peer networks and relationships developed on the streets. This research aims to increase understanding on whether homelessness and formal work are compatible through highlighting the everyday challenges that affect homeless youth in their struggles to successfully transition off the streets and into adulthood. Through 30 semi-structured in-depth interviews with a sample of homeless youth recruited from Ottawa, Ontario, this research investigates how peer networks affect a street youth’s ability towards taking conventional or alternative pathways to moneymaking pathways. Further, it examines why some homeless youth choose the types of informal moneymaking strategies they are engaged in and why they stray away from conventional working aspirations.

Results reveal that despite maintaining conventional goals and aspirations regarding rejoining conventional streams of society, youths turned to informal work due to their lack of viable options in the formal economy. Engagement in the informal economy was cited as necessary in order to satisfy addictions and generate a quick income to alleviate economic instability. Informal working involvements were met with numerous impeding risks and barriers including being subject to victimization, harsh weather conditions, mental and physical health issues and demographic barriers. Cumulative disadvantages were seen to impede youths’ abilities to successfully navigate their informal behaviours on the streets as well as maintain an attachment to family, friends, and school. Further, in most cases youth tended to lack significant formal employment experiences. Even when attaining formal employment, youths turned to illegal activities to supplement their incomes. Severe barriers challenged youths’ abilities to maintain employment as well as balance an attachment to family, friends, and school. These included challenges inherent to living without stable shelter, a lack of viable transportation and struggles with addiction. The results also suggest how social networks influenced youths’ navigations on the streets in respect to employment (both formal and informal) by facilitating criminal engagement through direct and indirect exposures and being embedded in criminal networks. Formal employment facilitation was nearly non-existent through means of peer network influences and youths’ motives and attitudes regarding conventional lifestyle aspirations did not reflect that of their peer networks. The findings in this research are discussed in light of Agnew’s (2006) General Strain Theory and McCarthy et al.’s (2002) Social Capital Theory. Suggestions are offered for future research directions and implications for policy.

PUBLICATION DATE: 2017