Many different terms are used to describe young people experiencing homelessness, including street youth, street kids, runaways, homeless youth, etc. Youth homelessness refers to young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers, and importantly, lack many of the social supports deemed necessary for the transition from childhood to adulthood. In such circumstances, they do not have a stable or consistent residence or source of income, nor do they necessarily have adequate access to the support networks necessary to foster a safe and nurturing transition into the responsibilities of adulthood. According to Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, 20% of the homeless population in Canada is comprised of youth between the ages of 13-24. In a given year, there are at least 35,000-40,000 youth experiencing homelessness. They may be temporarily living in hostels, staying with friends, living in 'squats,' renting cheap rooms in boarding houses or hotels, or actually living on the streets. They may also be living with parents or relatives, while at imminent risk of losing their shelter. The reality is that over the course of time many youth experiencing homelessness move between these various housing situations –the instability of housing is partially what characterizes their homelessness.
Youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness, both in terms of its causes and consequences, but also in how we must consider and apply interventions. Street youth, unlike adults experiencing homelessness, leave homes defined by relationships (both social and economic) in which they were typically dependent upon adult caregivers, whether parents or relatives. A high percentage of youth experiencing homelessness were also in the care of child protection services. 77.5% of youth experiencing homelessness reported that their inability to get along with their parents played a significant role in why they left home. For all of these reasons and more, a youth-based strategy – and the services that support this strategy – must be distinct from the adult sector.
As a group, youth experiencing homelessness is diverse. There are typically more male unhoused youth than females (Segaert reports that 63% of youth in shelters are male, and 37% are female), which may be an outcome of the fact that young women are especially at risk of crime and violence (including sexual assault) while experiencing homelessness, leading them to find alternatives to the streets even if those alternatives pose other significant risks. 59.6% of homeless youth who are street-involved report violent victimization, meaning they are 6 times more likely to be victimized compared to the general population. As well, the more time a youth experiences homelessness, the more likely they are to be exposed to a number of risks such as sexual exploitation, economic exploitation, traumatic events, declining health and addictions.
Finally, certain significant sub-populations of youth are overrepresented, including Indigenous youth and in some cities like Toronto, black youth. Finally, youth who identify as LGBTQ2S make up 25-40% of the youth experiencing homelessness. Unique barriers also exist for trans youth accessing the shelter system. 1 in 3 transgender individuals are rejected from shelters for their gender identities and gender expression.
Age also matters when considering youth homelessness. Developmentally, there is a hugedifference between the needs, circumstances, and physical and emotional development of a 14 year old compared to an 18 year old or a 23 year old (though it must also be acknowledged that the factors that produce and sustain youth homelessness – including violence, trauma and abuse, may also contribute to developmental impairment for older youth).
Common factors when looking at youth homelessness include the young age and lack of experience of independent living. This is important to consider because any response to homelessness must address the causes and the conditions of homelessness. While there are some commonalities that frame the experience of homelessness for young people and adults – lack of affordable housing, systems failures in health care and corrections, for instance – there are important differences, including physical, mental, social and emotional development. Youth experiencing homelessness typically lack the experience and skills necessary to live independently, and this is especially true for those under the age of 18. Moreover, the causes of youth homelessness are not necessarily the same as those that impact adults. Family conflict underlies youth homelessness, and many are fleeing abuse or leaving the care of child welfare services.
One solution to help youth experiencing homelessness make healthy transitions to adulthood and avoid life on the street, is strengthening families and addressing their needs. There are a number of programs available to homeless or at-risk families, youth and children. A Way Home Canada features key examples of youth services, including:
- School-based interventions
- Family reconnection
- Support for LGBTQ2S Youth
- Support for youth transitioning from care
- Employment, training and education
- Youth transitional housing and Housing First
Service providers and governments must also understand the distinct challenges of sub-populations in order to meet their specific needs and develop solutions to ending homelessness. For example, 29.5% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S and of the homeless youth staying in shelters, 28.2% identify as members of racialized communities. Below are a few youth and family-focused initiatives: