Research Matters Blog
Last month, I began to outline new directions in my postdoctoral research agenda that would bring together my research on systems integration in the homelessness sector with my new research on community safety. This week, I learned that one the 16-year old youth I hired this summer as a youth researcher for the project on community safety is couch-surfing. I’ve been worried about housing insecurity for this particular young man – let’s call him Marlin – for some time now.
Marlin lives in Toronto Community Housing (TCH) with his mom, siblings, and his mother’s new boyfriend. A few years ago he and his family were moved by TCH from Scarborough to Jane and Finch. After moving, he did not attend school in his new neighbourhood for two years. Although he describes the problem as political (“I have beefs with people here”), I think Marlin was afraid. Anyone who knows anything about “the politics of the ‘hood” knows that this East to West would have been a difficult move for him – the unspoken rules and norms of the streets here wouldn’t be immediately obvious to Marlin, and he could have easily and unwittingly transgressed them. I will admit that this is something I’ve had to learn from the youth we’ve been working with. Most days, I feel like Jon Snow beyond the Wall: “You know nothing …” My experience working with our team of youth researchers over the last seven weeks is that “politics” and “beefs,” make them unwilling to go into many of the ‘hoods in Jane and Finch except their own.
Eventually Marlin got involved with the justice system, and spent some time at the Roy McMurty Youth Centre. Although he was a first-time offender, he ended up staying for 30 days, being moved from Intake to the Ranges in the jail because his mom wouldn’t post bail for him. With a minor charge like the one Marlin received, in order to post bail, his mom simply had to state that she was willing to be responsible for him and have him come home. But conflicts between the two of them preceded his charge, and she was not willing to have him home right away. When he was eventually released into his mother’s custody, it was without any support for the resolution of the conflicts brewing between the two of them. In fact, from Marlin’s point of view, the time at “the Roy” simply intensified the conflict between the two of them. When we spoke about this time in his life, he explained that he was hurt and angry by his mom’s reluctance to post bail. Trouble between the two of them continued to brew. Marlin has another brush with the law, and continued difficulty with school.
Throughout this summer, Marlin and his mom were often having difficulty. Many times, he’d come in to work having not slept much the night before. I knew from other interviews that trouble with the “dukes” (i.e., family) resulted in some young people crashing with friends or relatives, sleeping in stairwells, or “trap-“ (i.e., crack) houses for a night or two until the dust settled at home. I suspected that something like this might be happening with Marlin. But when I asked him if he was ever sleeping “out,” he assured me that he wasn’t. Even though things would escalate between he and his mom, he’d always end up back in his own bed at some point in the night. Yesterday we learned that his mom has kicked him out.
This is the point where a coordinated and preventative response to youth homelessness could make all the difference. Marlin would like to return home. But things between him and his mother have escalated to violence. A successful diversion for Marlin, could involve respite and other supports for his mother coupled with conflict mediation for the two of them. Without any intervention, however, it is likely that Marlin’s will continue to experience housing instability.
Sometimes couch-surfing is described as hidden homelessness because the individual doesn’t use shelter services and may not touch the homelessness system at all. But Marlin’s homelessness won’t stay hidden for long. Eventually he will stay out his welcome with friends or be asked to pay rent. Our summer research program has ended. We’ve connected Marlin to another participatory action research project taking place in Jane and Finch, but he is likely to need more money than this work will bring. At this point, his options are limited. Ontario Works is insufficient to cover the costs of housing in Toronto. Marlin has received very few high school credits to date, and needs considerable one-on-one support to stay on task. Further, youth in Jane and Finch have difficulty accessing employment – particularly those like Marlin who are involved in the justice system and need time off work to meet with probation officers and go to court. Further, Marlin has needed a lot of patience and support from our team to keep him meaningfully engaged in our project all summer. We committed to doing this work when we hired him. Others will be unlikely to make this commitment, and Marlin will be unlikely to maintain his employment.
Although I’ve glossed over many important details, Marlin’s story illustrates some of the interplay between housing and homelessness, education, youth justice, family dynamics, and community safety. If we really are committed to creating and maintaining safe and healthy communities, we need to think about how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together in order to ensure that Marlin and his family are meaningfully supported by, and included in, the broader community.
I’ve never really liked the term ‘child poverty’. In Canada, children are poor because their parents (or other caregivers) are poor. ‘Family poverty’ is a more realistic term, yet it’s not quite as appealing and doesn’t tug on the heartstrings as much as ‘child poverty’. But semantics of terminology aside, new research released this week provides a glimpse into the extent of this issue.
- “29 per cent of children — almost 149,000 — live in low income families.”
- “Among Canada’s 13 major cities, Toronto is tied with Saint John, N.B., as having the highest child poverty rate.”
- “Across Toronto, almost 40 per cent of the city’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30 per cent or more.”
- “Residents of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Latin American background are more likely to be living in poverty.”
The numbers are astounding. And yet, they’re not. We have heard this story before. We have heard this story from community after community after community. In Toronto alone, the map of child poverty is a very close reflection of the work David Hulchanski did about the Three Cities of Toronto.
So yes, poverty of all sorts is an epidemic in this country. Child poverty, family poverty, youth poverty, adult poverty….POVERTY is an epidemic.
As I wrote in an upcoming report on housing affordability the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is releasing in several weeks, the social safety net, that Canada is so famous for, is failing. Families can’t afford housing, they can’t afford food, they can’t afford healthcare; they can’t afford so many of the basic necessities of life. It’s not a matter of a handful of people slipping through the cracks…there are big, Canadian-winter sized potholes sucking people in.
As the Star story shows, poverty is also very racialized in this country. Immigrants, refugees, racialized Canadians and indigenous families are earning less than Caucasian families. This is not a new phenomenon either. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
In 1989, the federal government pledged to end child poverty by 2000. Nearly 25 years later the number of children living in poverty has increased. A full generation has gone by and children and their families are getting poorer. How many more children will continue to be forced to live without sufficient resources for survival before the problem is addressed? For more on this issue, see the now fully ironically named, Campaign 2000.
Poverty can be solved. Increasing minimum wage across the country is an important first step, as is raising the social assistance rates. Ensuring that there is enough affordable housing is also crucial.
For more information on affordable housing watch for the COH’s upcoming reports this fall. You can also learn more about solving poverty from “I’m Still Hungry: Child and Family Poverty in Ontario".
No one wants to be homeless and living on the street. It’s cold, dangerous and it can kill you. But at this very moment in Vancouver, 600+ youth, some as young as 13, call “the street” home.
How did they get there?
Why? That’s a complicated question. But for many youth in Vancouver, the streets are safer than home.
Some youth come from generational poverty and leave home or are pushed out when they become a burden on the family’s meager income. Some come from such dysfunction as to be exploited by family into prostitution & drug-trafficking. Others have mental health issues – diagnosed, or not. While some youth have spent their entire childhood in foster care and “age out” at 19 years old, after which they are left to fend for themselves, unsupported. Dysfunction is normalized for these youth. Abuse, violence and deceit may have been routine childhood experiences.
What are the dangers street youth face?
Living on the street is dangerous. Street youth are vulnerable, and many face a wide range of victimization and exploitation by peers and strangers. Some are pushed into prostitution, crime and drug-trafficking just to survive. Understandably, many have a high level of distrust of adults, authority, police, and social services.
Why can’t they get off the street?
Due to past or recurring trauma, some youth suffer from cognitive disabilities impairing their ability to make smart decisions. They repeatedly make impulsive, bad decisions that cause them further harm.
When temporary accommodation is available, it often leads to more problems: Safe housing isn’t affordable, and affordable housing isn’t safe.
Many street youth suffer from mental health issues. They want help, but navigating mental health networks without support is daunting and discouraging for youth, who often fall through the cracks into despair. Their wellness can deteriorate quickly; they go from homeless to entrenched. These youth have no mentors to guide them in a positive way. They’re completely alone, surviving day to day. Many lose hope and think they will die on the street, alone. Some do.
“Exiting” the street is a long, tough slog. It takes the dedication of many professionals: outreach, social workers, doctors, addiction & trauma counselors, teachers, etc. Through a combined effort, this network of caring people can and do help many street youth slowly rebuild their lives.
There is hope.
Educational funds for homeless youth are practically non-existent. But without education and a marketable skill how will these youth ever have a chance? That’s where H.E.L.P. For Street Youth comes in.
We work with professionals to identify youth who have stabilized, are on the road to recovery, and may be ready to return to school to learn a trade, get a job, get off the street and have a better life. We enter into agreements with agencies to ensure the youth has a mentor, a full support system in place, and that we are given regular updates.
We’ve awarded our first educational scholarship. Amy, a young woman studying to be a dental assistant, is on track to graduate in June.
We also work with local high school students who donate backpacks filled with essential items for street youth through our Project Backpack campaign. Project Backpack has been going for eight years, and involves hundreds of students supplying street youth with items to help them live. To date, we’ve stuffed and donated close to 1800 packs – that’s approximately $90,000 worth of donated merchandise. It’s a growing community campaign that affects both the students & street youth in a positive way.
Our mission is to help these vulnerable youth go from a hopeless to a hopeful place. Our mandate is about forming partnerships with many people: the professionals who work with the street youth, the community members who donate funds, the local high school students who donate backpacks, and the street youth themselves.
Together we can help make a difference – one youth at a time.
This post was republished with permission from CanadaHelps.
Shelters are the cornerstones of service provision to the homeless in many communities across Canada. The below infographic, published by Inn From the Cold, details some information about services offered by this family shelter in Calgary. It's commonly thought that it’s only single men and women that experience homelessness, however this is simply untrue. Single-parent families and children form a substantial part of Canada's homeless population.
While there is a great deal of diversity in the types of families living in homelessness, many of these families are headed by a single parent (usually female). The National Shelter Study, conducted between 2005 and 2009, showed that while the number of individuals using shelters did not change significantly, demographic changes had occurred. These changes included an increase in the number of children and families using shelters. The average length of a family stay went from being 33.4 days in 2005, to 50.2 days in 2009, an increase of over 50%.
The causes of family homelessness include unemployment, low wages and a lack of affordable housing options. Factors predicting homelessness include food insecurity and rising housing costs. These forces work together in developing a precarious situation for struggling families, who often find themselves only one illness, accident, or unexpected expense away from homelessness.
As families are experiencing increased homelessness, it is important that shelters are equipped with the necessary services to meet the needs of both adults and children. This means counselling for families that have been through domestic abuse, training and education, as well as playrooms and toys for children to play with during their stay. Shelters are often placed at the center of a wide network of resources, networks that may include specialized child services, healthcare options, counsellors, and other resources to help these individuals with their unique needs.
Not all communities have the same needs. The infographic states that on any given night, children staying at the Inn made up 54% of occupants. This is in contrast to the National Shelter Study, which states that children made up only 6.5% of all shelter users in 2009. Shelters are often population-specific, which allows them to focus and be efficient in meeting the needs of subgroups that are overrepresented among homeless populations, including shelters for women leaving abusive situations.
LGBTQ2 youth are another example of a subpopulation that is overrepresented among the homeless population in Canada. Many youth are persecuted because of their orientation and may be kicked out of their homes, or elect to leave home because of the discrimination they’ve had to face. 1 in 5 youth in Toronto's shelter system identify as being LGBTQ2, that's more that twice as many identified LGBTQ2 than the area's general population. To date, there are no specialized housing initiatives for LGBTQ2 in Canada. This is despite data that shows LGBTQ2 youth are at higher risk for substance abuse, more likely to be victims of sexual assault and that that shelter workers need training for working with LGBTQ2 youth. Funding, to meet the unmet needs of underserved homeless populations and to continue to provide services to currently funded groups, is largely dependent on community support and committed advocacy.
The Ten Year Plan is a planning framework that is widely used in different sectors (environment, health care etc.), is used by industry and government as a strategic planning practice with clear targets and measurable outcomes. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness model was pioneered in the United States, first by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, when they released A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years in 2000. This document, which drew heavily on emerging evidence regarding how to effectively reduce and end homelessness, was meant to inspire communities across the country to change their focus from ‘managing’ homelessness to ‘ending’ it through strategic shift towards prevention and rehousing. Part of this strategy has been the promotion of the Housing First approach, which identifies the importance of moving people into some form of housing regardless of their problems. The newest plan shifts the focus of ending homelessness to recognize the role of prevention and a retooling of the emergency sector to support that objective and to move people out of homelessness as quickly as possible. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness strategy was eventually adopted in over 300 communities in the US. In 2010, the Ten Year Plan approach has become official government policy, with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness releasing Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010.
Based on the success of American Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, many Canadian communities began to adapt the approach to their own contexts. In particular, communities in Alberta have adopted this approach, beginning with Calgary. Eventually the Province of Alberta followed suit, as did other communities across the country. Finally, the newly formed Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness released a national strategy in 2012 titled, A Plan Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in 10 Years.
Plans to End Homelessness in Canada:
- Calgary: Calgary's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness
- Edmonton: A Place to Call Home: Edmonton's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness
- Lethbridge: Bringing Lethbridge Home: 5-Year Community Plan to End Homelessness
- Grande Prairie: Grande Prairie's Multi-Year Plan to End Homelessness
- Medicine Hat: Starting at Home in Medicine Hat: Our 5 Year Plan to End Homelessness
- Red Deer: Everyone's Home: Red Deer's Five Year Plan to End Homelessness - 2014 to 2018
- Wood Buffalo: Heading Home – the Right Thing To Do. Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness
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