On April 11th, 2014, Dr. Stephen Gaetz spoke to a gathering of 30 youth workers in Victoria, BC, host by UVIC Centre for Addictions Research BC. He is the Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Homeless Hub. His most recent study, Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada, details the looming national crisis surrounding youth homelessness and the need for evasive action. Key to this action is the need to move from an emergency response to bolstering the preventive resources that will do more than just offer a “band-aid’ solution to a hemorrhaging problem.
What else do we know besides youth aged between 16 to 24 are the fastest growing segment of the national homeless population? In the State of Homelessness in Canada 2013 report, it is estimated that about 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness annually, and about 30,000 are homeless on any given night. One report estimates that about 20% of the homeless population using shelters are unattached youth between the ages of 16-25, and a further 1% are under 16. This means that there are at least 35,000 young people who are homeless during the year, and perhaps 6000 on any given night. It is important to note that this does not include young people who do not enter the shelter system, who are absolutely homeless and are sleeping out of doors or in other places unsuitable for human habitation, or those who are temporarily staying with friends and have nowhere else to live (couch surfers).
The more underpinning problem for youth is that becoming homeless does not just mean a loss of stable housing, but rather leaving a home in which a youth was embedded in relations of dependence, thus experiencing an interruption and potential rupture in social relations with parents and caregivers, family members, friends, neighbours and community. This dislocation leads to trauma and anxiety which, in human terms, have a long shelf life. The greatest impediment in moving youth in transition is the trauma load they carry, not just from homeless, but the situation and forces that caused their homelessness.
However, regardless of the challenges, Dr. Gaetz is optimistic. He argues that solutions to youth homelessness do exist. If we apply the best knowledge we have to developing strategic and coordinated responses, we can end youth homelessness as a problem in Canada. There are indeed solutions to youth homelessness. The review of programs and practices from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States reveals that innovation and passion combined with solid research evidence can lead to good results. Many Canadian communities and provincial governments are now interested in moving towards strategic responses to addressing the problem including understanding how we can stop the flow of young people from child protection, mental health facilities or juvenile detention into homelessness, identifying a stronger role for schools as part of the solution, helping families become stronger and offering young people a way back home. We also understand that many young people can no longer return home or in some cases have no home to go to. For these young people we need strong models of accommodation and supports that will help them move forward with their lives.
Underlying all of this is the need to make some broader changes in Canadian society. We need to ensure that there is an adequate supply of affordable housing. We need to ensure young people have the opportunity to earn a sufficient income to pay the rent, purchase food and have fulfilling lives and / or receive rent supplements if they cannot earn a living wage. We must ensure every young person has the opportunity to go to school and fulfill his or her dreams. And finally, we must work towards a society where young women, as well as LGBTQ youth and those who experience racism, can live in a world where who you are is not a limiting factor and where all young people can achieve their potential. The solutions to youth homelessness do exist. If we apply the best knowledge we have to developing strategic and coordinated responses, we can end youth homelessness as a problem in Canada.