Homeless youth, and youth living in other critical housing situations are much more likely to be using illicit drugs compared to other youth. There is a tendency to attribute such discrepancies to stereotypes about homeless individuals, rather than considering how homelessness itself affects drug use. The infographic below, published by the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research, explores alcohol and drug use among youth in street-based settings in Victoria B.C. Data is drawn from the experiences of street-involved youth, aged 15-24, who were recruited from local shelter programs to complete a study.

Young people living in critical housing situations face stressors that most youth are not forced to deal with. For example, when young people are homeless, the stress associated with finding a safe shelter to sleep and rest every night is overwhelming. Difficulties in accessing nutritional food, exposure to physical and sexual violence, and the chronic stigma associated with being homeless may contribute to the use of coping mechanisms. Substances may be used for many other reasons, such as social inclusion, for recreation and for pleasure.

Some readers may feel that the Victoria BC sample may not be representative of street-involved youth in other areas of Canada. However, upon comparison with the Youth Pathways Project Study, which was conducted in Toronto from 2005-2006, there are some striking similarities for drug use. For example:

In the Victoria study

In the YPP study

  • 88% of youth surveyed reported using marijuana in the past 30 days
  • 82% reported using tobacco
  • 33% reported cocaine use
  • 23% reported using amphetamines
  • 73% of youth reported using marijuana in the past 30 days
  • 91% reported using tobacco
  • 24% reported cocaine use
  • 16% reported using amphetamines

These figures suggest strong commonalities exist when it comes to drug use among street-involved youth across Canada.

Research has shown that homelessness is an independent predictor of injection drug use among street-involved youth. Peer substance abuse and homelessness have also been shown to predict substance abuse from adolescence through early adulthood. Substance abuse produces poor health outcomes for youth, and depending on the methods used to consume a drug, it can also lead to infection and disease.  For some youth, substance abuse leads to addiction, sexual exploitation, and even criminal behaviour related to the drug trade. Accordingly, interventions that focus on housing supports for youth can reduce drug use, which in turn leads to improved physical health and well-being.

However, drug use is only one indicator of health and well-being among street-involved and homeless youth. A large body of research has documented that homeless youth are highly disadvantaged compared to youth in the general population across a wide range of health outcomes. As it currently stands, there tend to be few available interventions available for street-involved youth. Unfortunately, a lack of service availability and accessibility for these youth directly worsens their health and contributes to chronic homelessness.

Alcohol & Drug Use Among Youth in Street-Based Settings in Victoria, BC