Do Homeless Youth Get Enough to Eat?

Homeless Hub backgrounder on street youth and nutrition.

Backgrounder: Do homeless youth get enough to eat?

When we think about the lives of people who are homeless, an important question is whether they get enough to eat?  It goes without saying that food is important to everyone.  Food provides us with the nutrients we need in order to survive.  Eating on a daily basis gives us the energy we need to carry out our basic tasks, like going to school, working or taking care of our home.  For young people growing up, a good diet is important for proper growth.  If we don’t get enough food – and enough of the right kinds of food – if undermines our ability to get things done, and compromises our health.  

Do street youth get enough food?

Valerie Tarasuk and her team of researchers have produced important research on homeless youth and nutrition (Antoniades & Tarasuk, 1998; Dachner & Tarasuk, 2002Gaetz, Tarasuk, Dachner & Kirkpatrick, 2006; Tarasuk, Dachner, Poland & Gaetz, 2009; Tarasuk, Dachner & Li, 2005; Tse & Tarasuk, 2008).  She has conducted a number of studies in the City of Toronto.  Her research makes clear that young people who are homeless are not getting enough food, and the food they eat is not sufficiently nutritious.   When compared to teenagers who are housed, homeless youth are failing to obtain proper nutrients, and in general, the food they eat does not give them the sufficient energy to do what they need to do. “On average, the level of energy (i.e., calories) in their diets approximated the amount required to support a very sedentary lifestyle, but fell well below the level of energy needed for someone engaged in more physical activity” (Gaetz, et al. 2006).

Where do homeless people actually get food?
All of us need to eat and drink on a daily basis.  If you are homeless, getting the food you need can be a big challenge.   Where people who are homeless get food really depends on the town or city they live, the laws that exist in that city, and the kinds of services that are available for people who are homeless.

Even in a city like Toronto, most street youth cannot count on getting three good meals a day, seven days a week.  Worse than this, many street youth report that some days, they don’t get to eat at all.  Not being able to count on having access to the food and nutrients you need day in, day out, is referred to as “food insecurity”.  When you are homeless, food is not always easy to come by.  

So, if you are young and homeless and living in a city like Toronto, where do you get your food?  In Val Tarasuk’s research, most street youth obtained their food through a variety of strategies (Dachner & Tarasuk, 2002; Tarasuk et al., 2005; Gaetz et al., 2006; Tarasuk et al. 2009).  This includes purchasing food with money that you earn. They may also get food from other people, including friends or passers by.  Some young people obtain discarded food from restaurants (left over food). Young people suffering from chronic food deprivation are more likely to steal food or eat food thrown away by others (Tarasuk et al., 2009).  Finally, many obtain snacks and meals at charitable food programs.  

Buying food when you are homeless
Most people who are homeless in fact do prefer to buy their food, and make choices about what they eat and when.  This shouldn’t be surprising, as this is probably true of most people.    When you are homeless, you cannot buy food to cook at home (with no home to go to), and so you must rely on prepared food and restaurants. The big problem is of course obtaining money necessary to buy food.  People who are homeless typically have very little money, and getting (and maintaining) a regular job can be very difficult, especially when you are constantly hungry or malnourished.  Sometimes people will get money from panhandling (begging) or other activities, and use this to get food (for more on the money making strategies of homeless youth, see the Backgrounder: Why do street youth panhandle?).   Unfortunately, panhandlers typically don’t earn much money, and so often eat on an inconsistent basis.  Not having money and being homeless often means you aren’t able to purchase good food, and in some cases you face discrimination in restaurants.

Eating at Charitable Food Services
In many cities, there are charitable food services.  These are places like homeless shelters, drop-ins and soup kitchens, which provide food for people who are poor, including people who are homeless.  These programs take many different forms.  Some more traditional  ‘soup kitchens’ provide hot meals or sandwiches once or several times a day. Other places will supply coffee, donuts or muffins. In some cities, there are mobile vans that drive around and distribute food such as soup, sandwiches and drinks at various locations around the city.  

In many of these agencies, food may be offered alongside a range of other services, including counselling, emergency shelter, religious services, educational programs, or just the opportunity to get out of the cold.  While many of these programs are no doubt very good, most struggle in meeting the nutritional needs of people who use their services (Tse & Tarasuk, 2008; Gaetz et al., 2006).  This is because in many cases agencies lack the necessary funding to ensure they have enough food on a consistent basis, or can purchase food that is of good quality.  Agencies that rely on charitable donations often cannot predict what food they will receive, or when, and so effectively planning a food program becomes difficult.  As a result, in spite of their best efforts, few agencies are able to provide good meals three times a day, seven days a week.  This means people who are homeless typically have to be able to figure out which programs have food and when, on a daily basis.  Knowing where to go, and being able to get there can be a challenge if you lack mobility, or are malnourished.  The problem is that because in many cases such agencies lack adequate funding, rely on charitable donations, and don’t have good access to nutritional planning, the food provided is not adequate or nutritious, and very few agencies are able to provide three meals a day, seven days a week.

Does it matter where you get your food?         
If you are homeless, are you better off earning money from panhandling or relying on the food you can get from charitable programs?   Unfortunately, what Val Tarasuk found in her research is that it doesn’t matter if you get all of your food from charitable food programs, or if you purchase food from the proceeds of panhandling.  Your food supply will be insecure, and you are equally likely to be malnourished.

Stephen Gaetz (2009)
Backgrounder: “Do homeless youth get enough to eat?”
Homeless Hub – Educational Resources.  
York University

Additional Reading:

To explore first hand accounts of the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, visit the Homeless Hub's Experiences section.

For more information on the following subjects, visit the Homeless Hub's Topics library:
-    Hunger and Nutrition
-    Health problems and poverty
-    Health care and community services
-    Youth
-    Social Exclusion
-    Discrimination
-    Income, Employment and Education

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The Homeless Hub