The Unacknowledged National Crisis: Our Homeless Youth

Photo courtesy of Raising the Roof

A study conducted by Homeless Hub in 2013 reported that there is at least 200,000 Canadians who experience homelessness, with 20 percent being youth on any given year. Raising the Roof, an organization that focuses on long-term solutions to homelessness have even coined the staggering statistics as an “unacknowledged national crisis.”

Looking at the big picture, homelessness is not limited to just those who sleep on our streets. It’s estimated that there is 14,400 in emergency shelters, 7,350 in violence against women shelters, and 4,464 in hospitals, prisons, or interim housing.

Anita Stellinga, Vice President of Community Investment of the United Way of Peel Region says, “The poverty rate for the general population is 17% and child poverty is at 20% in Peel Region.” She adds, that “those more susceptible are young, vulnerable communities including queer and trans-gender youth (estimated at 20–40 percent of all homeless youth), and Aboriginal youth.”

There is also a variety of misconceptions out there about who these street kids really are. If we only judge a book by its cover, then we will only see them as simply addicts, social misfits, or just overall delinquents, and a disturbance to our society.

If we take the time to look a little deeper we will find that there is story behind these kids and one that needs to be told. Being homeless is not something a youth chooses, instead, it is something that chooses them.

“Homelessness, and particularly youth homelessness, are very complex issues. Mental health, family conflict, family breakdown, abuse, violence in the home, and addictions are just some of the few causes that are linked to homelessness,” says Stellinga.

Brianne Murray, Trainer-Consultant for the SNAP Youth Justice Institute in Toronto, agrees that there are many stigmas surrounding homeless and troubled youth on a day-to-day basis.

“Research has highlighted that 1 in 5 youth have mental health issues, with a high percentage that never get support for it. Youth often internalize these prejudices and discrimination, which can lead to self-stigmatization, meaning they start to believe in these false and negative perceptions. This has long term effects that can result in feelings of shame and guilt, eroding their self esteem and self confidence.”
Photo courtesy of The Paloma Foundation

Poverty is another reason more and more people are becoming homeless. “In 1980, 2% of the neighbourhoods in Peel Region were considered low income, and in 2010, 45% have become low-income neighbourhoods,”says Stellinga. “There is a rising income inequality in the Peel Region and we know that there are some people in our community who are living in their cars because they are not able to afford a home.”

Keeping our youth off the streets

The Young Street Mission-Evergreen Centre for Youth in Toronto, is a day shelter that works to put street kids on the right path by providing a multitude of free programs such as, their employment and health services to name a few.

Jesse Sudirgo, Manager of Street Involved Services at Evergreen says, “There are so many things youth are looking for, such as, a sense of belonging, a sense of safety, a sense of acceptance so, we want to get to them first before they get involved in the streets, that way we can actually help them.”

Evergreen works with street youth at their day shelter, which Sudirgo defines as “someone who spends most of their waking days on the streets doing illegal activity.” He explains Evergreen’s mandate is to develop a sense of trust with these youth in order to help them avoid what he calls, “street culture.”

“On the streets there are people who bring these youth into criminal activity whether it’s prostitution or addiction, and who suck these youth into these ideas and offer them a sense of protection. So, if we don’t do anything about it and don’t try to have them build healthy relationships with us…then there are people out there that can provide protection in a very corrupt way. So, it’s important for us to engage sooner rather then later so that trust can be built with us, before the trust is built with someone else.”
Photo courtesy of Covenant House

Another free program that offers a variety of different services is Stop Now And Plan (SNAP) at The Child Development Institute in Toronto. These programs include children’s mental health services, family violence services, Integra (learning disabilities) and healthy child development programs.

“I firmly support early intervention strategies, it’s something that the Child Development Institute has been doing for over 30 years,“ says Murray.

“We conduct evidence-based, gender sensitive risk assessment tools for children with disruptive behavior problems. These comprehensive tools help practitioners evaluate a range of risk factors that can influence a child’s susceptibility to engage in future antisocial behaviors.”

Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post

Also, The United Way of Peel Region along with government funders from all levels has been working toward eliminating homelessness in their communities. One of their mandates is to prevent homelessness and to support those that are already homeless.

“However, this is not enough, and in Peel we need a greater investment of resources to develop a strong system, says Stellinga. “A community plan is underway to address affordable housing and homelessness.”

The Housing First Solution

Justin Trudeau, just prior to being elected Prime Minister this past October, stated on the campaign trail that if he took office the Liberals would provide funding to create affordable housing.

“We will prioritize investments in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities, build more new housing units and refurbish old ones, give support to municipalities to maintain rent-geared-to-income subsidies in co-ops, and give communities the money they need for Housing First initiatives that help homeless Canadians find stable housing”-The Liberal Party of Canada Platform.

Since Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal government were elected “for the first time … the federal government has announced that it will be developing a national poverty reduction strategy that will address homelessness,” says Stellinga.

In Ontario the provincial government has also just released a homeless strategy to put an end to chronic homelessness within 10 years.

“For the first time, in a very, very long time, the federal government, the provincial government and our local regional government are aligned on this priority,” says Stellinga.“I believe that we can truly accomplish something to ensure that homelessness and poverty are eradicated!”

Photo courtesy of the CBC

It’s cost to the taxpayers

Homelessness affects all of us. Dealing with the social issues is important, its cost to taxpayers is also an economical issue.

Research conducted by Homeless Hub in 2013 stated that those living in poverty cost the Canadian economy $7 billion, with taxpayers paying roughly $15,000 annually to shelter just one homeless youth.

Murray believes that “education and keeping youth in school is definitely a protective factor to reduce the risk of homelessness.”

By providing youth with a support system and encouraging them to stay in school would in turn cost the tax payer a lot less than it would if we continually allow youth to drop out.

“The return on investment here is significant, says Stellinga. “There is a great deal of research which shows that every dollar invested in early years provides a return of $17 back to society…we would prevent the significant cost of poverty and homelessness down the road.”

However, others who also work in the community with youth on a daily basis did not necessarily see the housing first initiative as a way to end all homelessness specifically, youth homelessness. “Housing first yes matters, but the approach needs to be adjusted a bit for a youth says Sudirgo. “Their needs to be an understanding that a youth still needs assistance with a lot of other things as well as housing.”

Housing is an important factor in eliminating homelessness however, as Surdigo points out the approach to youth and adult homelessness need to be addressed differently. The key factor for youth homelessness is early intervention.

We need to create communities that are safe and that offer a variety of recreational activities. We need to continually fund programs for youth, provide assistance in keeping our youth in school and off the streets. And we need to continue to encourage parents to get involved in early development.

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