In helping to support young people move out of homelessness – or indeed to avoid homelessness in the first place – labour market integration presents both one of the greatest challenges, but at the same time, an incredible opportunity. The benefits of employment for at risk youth should be self-evident: income that can support housing and improved nutrition, positive engagement with adults and other employed youth, improved self-esteem, health and well-being.   The barriers to employment, however, are not always so obvious.

And for young people who are homeless, there is much that gets in the way of obtaining and maintaining employment.  It is sometimes assumed that young people who are homeless are lazy, attracted to the freedom the streets offer, and not properly motivated to ‘help themselves’.  That is, they aren’t really looking for work.  So, would employment training help?  Mainstream employment training programs focus on building hard skills (marketable skills) and soft skills (how to find a job, create a resume, deal with employers and colleagues), and increasing motivation. 

While there is no doubt that a lack of skills contributes to the underemployment of homeless youth, there is much more to this story, as the reality of life on the streets is much different than the stereotypical depiction of youth homelessness suggests. Canadian research highlights that motivation isn’t really the problem, as the overwhelming majority of homeless youth would much rather have a regular job than earn money through panhandling, squeegeeing or criminal activity, which is seen as demeaning and humiliating to many young people who have to rely on such activities for income

Rather, in order to work or even successfully participate in employment training, such youth need what any young person needs. They need permanent housing (with necessary supports) that is safe and appropriate, so they can rest, recover, have privacy and maintain hygiene (this is generally not the emergency shelter model).  They need income, to ensure they have food, transportation and supplies for work, while they are waiting for their first pay cheque. They may need a range of necessary supports – based on individual circumstances - if they are dealing with health issues, disability, mental health challenges and addictions. They need positive engagement with adults – to provide support, mentorship and direction.  And significantly, they need opportunities to advance their education, which as we know will have the longest lasting benefits in terms of enhancing the employability and lifechances of marginalized young people.

This latter point is important, because when young people become homeless in Canada, the goal of educational engagement is often a low priority in the rush to support them to become self-sufficient.

The Canadian Homelessness Research Network, with support from the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, is releasing an ebook on youth homelessness in early 2013, with a dedicated section on labour market integration.  These chapters, which draw on the latest research, provide communities that are working to address youth homelessness with solid evidence regarding what works. The first chapter focuses on what we know about youth homelessness and employment, the most significant barriers to labour market participation, and key elements of a successful strategy for training and integration into the workforce.  The second chapter highlights the role of corporate engagement in labour market integration for homeless youth.  Here, the authors highlight the major findings from Raising the Roof’s Private Sector Engagement Project.  The final two chapters present ‘promising practices’ in employment training for homeless youth.  Case studies of “Train for Trades" in St. John’s, NL, and “BladeRunners” in Vancouver highlight successful and innovative program models that address the barriers that homeless youth face; models with potential for adaptation elsewhere in Canada.  Look for these chapters and others in the New Year when the CHRN launches our latest ebook: Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice.

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