There is an unfortunate connection between foster care and homelessness. Family homelessness has been found to be prevalent amongst children who enter foster care, and foster care history is linked to future homelessness.

Many have criticized the child welfare system for not providing services beyond the age of 18, finding that many youth exiting care do not have the basic life skills necessary to live independently. Indeed, one American study called aging out of care “a pipeline to the streets.” Youth who age out of care face a number of simultaneous challenges, primarily: finding stable employment and decent, affordable housing. In Canada, how much support is offered to youth and up to what ages is determined by each province/territory. Ontario, for example, provides a number of grants and youth-in-transition services.

Despite this, there are many reasons why youth who have been in care become homeless. Transitioning into adulthood can be stressful even for youth in stable environments, and structural issues like poverty, racialization, and marginalization are definitely contributing factors. Aboriginal children, for example, are highly overrepresented in the child welfare system. Children and youth who have been in care often have fewer material and social resources, and tend to achieve lower levels of education.

Additionally, as noted in our section on foster care: “While in foster care, children are not always given therapy to help them address the problems that brought them to foster care. This may include sexual and physical abuse, family dissolution, parent alcohol and substance abuse, and being abandoned or orphaned. Nor do they receive treatment for their own resulting behavioural problems.” Finally, multiple placements and potential abuse while within the child welfare system can exacerbate existing problems.

Woman who has transitioned out of care
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Some existing studies

There has been limited research in Canada on what happens to youth as they leave care, but the existing findings are telling. A study by Raising the Roof of 689 street-involved youth found that 43% of survey respondents had also been in foster care.

A recent Vancouver study followed 497 homeless adults diagnosed with mental illness over five years, asking about family history and alcohol/drug use. The study found that 30% of the participants had been in foster care and that “a history of foster care placement independently predicted incomplete high school, duration of homelessness, discontinuous work history, less severe types of mental illness, multiple mental disorders, early initiation of drug and/or alcohol use, and daily drug use.”

The authors of Pilot Study: the Child Welfare System and Homelessness Among Canadian Youth interviewed 36 Canadian youth who had been in child welfare, 26 of which who had experienced homelessness. Of those, 16 had been in residential care at some point.

Researchers discovered that youth with more positive experiences and fewer placements were less likely to become homeless, and that having at least one important relationship was critical to the participants’ wellbeing. The study also showed age as a significant factor: youth who left care at younger ages were more likely to become homeless. Most importantly, researchers emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to youth homelessness: 

“On a broader level, the interviews reveal that for many homeless youth, housing alone would not be sufficient to resolve their homelessness. The “homelessness” that these youth experience often goes beyond the lack of shelter and includes the lack of employment and skills, low educational achievement and little social support. While stabilising the housing situation would be an important first step, and one that was fervently desired by many, the interviews reveal that other supports would be essential to make the move out of homelessness sustainable.”

Studies based outside of Canada have found significant rates of homelessness among youth who have aged out of care. 

One study (based in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois) in 2009 found that of the 603 participants who had exited foster care, 14% had experienced homelessness. Within that group, 54% had experienced it more than once, and two thirds became homeless within six months of leaving care.

The Midwest study determined that nearly 40% of former youth in care experienced homelessness or couch-surfed since their care had ended.


The Promoting Positive Outcomes for Youth in Care project in British Columbia stated that “youth from care need to have as gradual and extended a transition process to adulthood as youth in the general population. “ Similarly in 2012, The Provincial Advocate for Youth and Children in Ontario recommended extending services to youth up to the age of 25.

In Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness, Stephen Gaetz advocates for a strategic and integrated rather than emergency-response based approach to youth homelessness that focuses on prevention and the specific needs of youth.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Social Work Helper