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 GaetzProfessor & Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless HubYork University