Research Matters Blog
Much of the research on youth homelessness is conducted in larger cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. But youth homelessness occurs across the country, in communities of every size. Is the experience of being homeless substantially different for youth in non-urban areas? Over the last year, I – along with a group of other researchers - had the opportunity to investigate just that in York Region. Today, we’re excited to share our findings in the launch of our report, Leaving Home: Youth Homelessness in York Region.
The report, led by the United Way York Region and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, is the culmination of a community engagement process designed to raise awareness of youth homelessness and to explore potential solutions that work for the Region.
In an effort to better understand homelessness in York Region, we interviewed those who know it best – youth living, working and accessing services in the region. 60 youth experiencing homelessness generously gave their time and candidly shared their stories with us.
While many factors in youth homelessness in York Region are consistent with those found anywhere else, including reasons for becoming homeless, a shortage of shelter beds, and limited access to jobs and long-term housing, York Region faces some specific challenges. Our research team heard about these frequently during our interviews with youth and service providers in York Region. Specific challenges include a geographically large region, limited public transportation and rental housing, few emergency shelter beds and fragmented and limited services overall.
York Region has nine municipalities – everything from highly populated suburbs to small towns to rural communities – spread out over 1762 square kilometers, an area about three times larger than Toronto. While some of these communities have business districts and community hubs, there is no central downtown to house a collection of services, which can make it challenging for youth to find and access services. Most youth we interviewed had grown up in York Region. Some, like [Chris] had lived in various parts of the region:
I honestly lived all over. When I was living with my mom I lived in Richmond Hill and she also moved to Newmarket at one point and then…I lived up in Keswick and Aurora.
Transportation in the region is primarily by private vehicle, and roads are set up to accommodate this reality, making travel through the region difficult for those who cycle, walk or use public transit. With a large area and relatively smaller population, public transit is also limited, both in terms of routes and frequency and costly. This increases the difficulties for service providers and youth to connect and for youth to get to school and work, as described by one 25-year-old [Rob]:
It’s hard to get around. Like, even when you get accepted to a job, how the fuck you gonna work every day if you don’t have bus fare? You gotta work two weeks before you get paid. How you gonna buy lunch and get on the bus?
Rental housing in York Region tends to be scarce and expensive, with a majority of residences living in single-family suburban homes. In Canada, almost 70% of residences are owner-occupied, while that number rises to nearly 90% in York Region. In a limited rental market, many youth find themselves at a serious disadvantage, as this 19-year-old [Colby] explained:
I’ve been looking pretty hard the past two months. I’ve been to over 2 dozen appointments, open houses, talking to landlords…All the time it’s been in my budget, they’ve just been like my request is denied or they just rented to someone else because they had the money right away or they don’t want you to be on welfare or they don’t like who I am, stuff like that…
Additional services, including mental health programs, are limited in the region, with long wait times and a need to access programs and services outside the region. This is a source of frustration for both youth and service providers, who identified how important such help often was, as described by one 18-year-old [Andrew]:
[They] helped me get my feet back on the road…they stopped me from fighting, they stopped me…It’s just a reminder that I’m a person, I’m not a tool you can just yell at and talk to and throw around…I’m a person.
This represents just a fraction of what we heard from youth and services providers. On the one hand, we heard stories about family struggle, poor health outcomes, frustration, and a lack of services. But importantly, we also heard stories of great resilience, remarkable service staff, caring parents and hopeful youth.
Our report made a number of recommendations, above all to adopt a plan to end youth homelessness and an integrated system response. The good news? All signs suggest that the people of York Region are ready to act and in many ways, this has already begun. There is a growing community of individuals and organizations who recognize the challenges, but also the opportunities. In the last few years, momentum has grown. The launch of this report, and the commitment of all those that were involved, is the Region’s most recent step towards ending youth homelessness. It's safe to say, we're all excited to see what's next.
Poverty is an issue that needs to be addressed through investments in the right supports. There are common structural gaps in our social safety net that indicate the absence of adequate supports. These gaps include adequate access to healthcare and nutritious foods, educational supports and affordable housing. The infographic below, published by the Government of Ontario as part of a report on poverty reduction strategies for 2014-2019, provides details on investments being made in affordable housing.
The numbers in the infographic provide us some details on government investment in affordable housing. The province plans to invest $400 million dollars over five years to extend the Canada-Ontario Investment in Affordable Housing Agreement. The agreement was a joint investment to build new housing and renovate existing affordable housing. While these numbers provide us with a way to be optimistic about the future of affordable housing in Ontario, we have to ask two very important questions:
- What does funding for affordable housing look like in Ontario, beyond the immediate future?
- Do we have plans in place for affordable housing to be sustainable in the long-term in Ontario?
The future of affordable housing funding, even just a decade down the line, is far from clear. While the federal government’s investment in the Affordable Housing in Ontario program demonstrates an interest in alleviating Ontario’s affordable housing crisis, federal funding for the future of affordable housing in Ontario paints a stark picture. The graph below, published by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, illustrates the planned decline in federal social housing funding to the province. It remains unclear how these funds will surface without support from the federal government.
The support of the federal government is crucial if Ontario is expected to be successful in tackling its affordable housing crisis. Federal-provincial partnerships are a large reason why Ontario has been able to construct over 17,000 housing units, repair existing housing units, and provide rental and down payment assistance to over 81,000 families in need. Furthermore, affordable housing has many social and economic benefits. It prevents homelessness, and is far more cost-efficient than having individuals live in hospital beds, long-term care beds, and beds at correctional facilities.
Perhaps the primary reason why removing federal support for affordable housing is so troubling is because it ignores the urgent need for more social housing options in Ontario. Wait lists for affordable housing are only growing.
Strategies that look to address poverty and affordable housing need to have a long-term focus.
The importance of spreading awareness about the importance of continued federal funding in long-term strategies extends beyond affordable housing, to issues including health, nutrition and homelessness. The plans that the federal government has for funding are not set in stone. Public support and advocacy for affordable housing can provide the necessary political will to make changes to current plans the federal government has for dropping funding for affordable housing programs in Ontario.
One of the best methods of determining progress is through the use of Point-In-Time (PIT) Counts. Alternatively referred to as “Street Counts”, “Homeless Counts” or “Street Needs Assessments” PIT Counts are a measure of the number of homeless people on a specific day (hence the point in time reference). This type of counting is known as “taking a snapshot” of the situation. Some communities do a strict inventory of beds and occupancy rates in homeless shelters. Other communities include women and children living in Violence Against Women (VAW) shelters and people staying in hospitals or jails with no fixed address.
Some municipalities go even further by developing a questionnaire to ask people experiencing homelessness about their history, background and needs. This includes demographic questions such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation and veteran status. It also asks what services people need or use, whether they would like housing and how long they have been homeless.
See our section on "How to conduct counts" to find resources on methods, challenges, and best practices in conducting a homeless count.
You can also find the latest homeless count reports for your community in our "Community Profiles" section.
“When you see injustice – do something about it” (Robert Moses)
We recently returned from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ National Conference on Ending Homelessness. What an amazing week! Surrounded by enthusiastic, smart, committed people – people with lived experience, researchers, politicians, practitioners, community members - all working together to do something about homelessness. This isn’t a celebration of just how wonderful we all are, of course, but rather a chance to move the agenda forward because we all understand that there is still so much to do.
Nevertheless, we want to comment on some of the highlights of the conference.
- Research presentations – There were so many outstanding papers and sessions focusing on research that has real implications for policy and practice. One that stands out was the session on “Homelessness Prevention” (the new frontier, as far as we are concerned), with great presentations from Kathy Kovacs-Burns, Amanda Noble, Cordelia Abankwa, and Deborah Rutman. Another session I enjoyed was one on “Measuring Progress to End Homelessness”, with Abra Adamo, Ron Kneebone and Jill Atkey. Who knew economists could be so funny (Ron) and interesting? There were many more great sessions, but we couldn’t get to them all of course. The point is that the research community is showing its value by contributing conceptual and evaluative research that will make a difference.
- Focus on Youth Homelessness – One gets a real sense that we are at an important turning point in how we can and should deal with youth homelessness. The special conference focus on youth homelessness (both the pre-conference session plus the panels during the conference) emphasized the degree to which we need solutions to youth homelessness that take account of the special needs of adolescents and young adults. The sessions highlighted what we know about effective plans to end youth homelessness, the adaptation of Housing First to meet the needs of young people, and important innovations that are happening across the country. There was also a call to take on youth homelessness at the national, regional and local levels through a new “Coalition to End Youth Homelessness”. The enthusiasm for all of this was best expressed through the packed rooms (standing room only, people watching from the hallways) for virtually all of the youth sessions. People are ready for action – we know what we need to do, now lets do it!
- People with Lived Experience – There was a real effort to include people with lived experience in this conference, in a way that was both respectful and meaningful. The pre-conference session entitled “Nothing about us, without us: People with lived experience taking leadership to end homelessness” explored ways of bringing lived expertise to the center of service delivery, research and advocacy. The great group of people involved in this session are holding everyone in the sector to account to ensure that the voices of those who are too often marginalized and ignored are heard and respected. Specifically, the group came up with 7 principles to guide the work of the sector.
a. Bring the perspectives of our lived experience to the forefront;
b. Include people with lived experience at all levels of the organization;
c. Value our time and provide appropriate supports;
d. Challenge stigma, confront oppression and promote dignity;
e. Recognize our expertise and engage us un decision-making;
f. Work towards our equitable representation;
g. Build authentic relationships between people with lived experience and without lived experience.
Stay tuned, because this group has plans to expand on these principles over the coming year!
- Relationship building – One of the things that is going to help move things forward in ending homelessness is the opportunity to share and collaborate. The large and diverse group of conference attendees included a cross section of service providers, people with lived experience, researchers, policy makers and community members. The presentations, workshops and even private conversations demonstrate the great work that is taking place in the sector. As we move forward, we will need to consider strategies of inclusion to ensure that more Aboriginal people, racialized minorities and members of other marginalized groups play a leading role in setting the agenda and participate in this relationship building.
- Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub table – This next one might only be a highlight for us, but we’re going to mention it nonetheless: the Homeless Hub booth was a huge success! We had so many visitors and received so much positive feedback about the work we do…plus we sold a ton of books! As a result, we have to thank all of you for making the conference so worthwhile and memorable for us!
A fantastic week! It’s clear to everyone, however, that no matter how great this conference was, we’re nowhere near done. Homelessness continues to be a crisis in Canada. The silver lining was very visible at the conference: there is a bright, committed and tireless group of people working towards the solutions that will bring an end to homelessness in this country. We are honoured to be a part of that circle and to work closely with many of you.
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) held annually on November 20, is a day that is meant to memorialize transgender people who were killed or have died due to anti-transgender hatred and violence. It also raises public awareness of the violent reality that so many trans and gender non-conforming people face on a daily basis.
Every year, new names are added to the memorial list of trans people who have been killed due to transphobia. This year, on November 20, 2014 at 3pm, the City of Toronto will recognize TDOR for the first time by raising the trans flag at Toronto City Hall.
Transphobia destroys people’s lives.
It is dangerous, toxic, violent, and leads to suicide.
Transphobia kills, period.
Discrimination and violence against transgender individuals is rampant.
Trans people face disproportionately high rates of victimization, unemployment, health inequities, and suicidality. Trans people of colour, especially trans women of colour face the highest rates of violence and discrimination.
The Trans PULSE project, a large Canadian study that investigated health and trans people in Ontario, found that 77% of trans people had seriously considered suicide, and that 45% had attempted suicide. Trans youth were found to be at the greatest risk of suicidality. The high rates of suicide are extremely alarming, especially during the early stages of gender transition, which is when trans people are at greatest risk of suicide. The early stages of transition are also when young people are often kicked out of the house or forced to leave home.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and 2-Spirit (LGBTQ2S) youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population: 25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S. Although there are disproportionately high rates of LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness, there is minimal support available, and support services and shelters often further marginalize this population of young people.
Trans and gender non-conforming youth are frequently rejected by shelters based on their gender identity and are regularly not permitted to access the shelter that matches the gender with which they identify because shelters frequently do not feel equipped to support trans youth. This forces trans youth to stay in a shelter that is not consistent with their gender identity, or to avoid the shelter system altogether.
Regardless of shelter standards and shelter policies, frontline workers struggle most with issues regarding access to services and support for trans people, and shelter staff tend to receive minimal training regarding trans-related issues, needs, and terminology. Staff often do not have an understanding of the importance of asking youth what pronoun and name they prefer, or that trans people can also identify as heterosexual and do not always fit under the umbrella term “queer”.
There is a type of normalization of trans oppression that occurs in the shelter system. Even though major emphasis is placed on access and the ability to access shelters with as few barriers as possible, regardless of people’s gender and sexual identities, it has somehow come to be accepted that not all shelters can accommodate trans and gender non-conforming individuals.
Shelters are often segregated by female and male floors, which have female and male bathrooms and showers. The floor that a person will be placed on has more to do with the staff’s perception of a person’s sex and less to do with how an individual actually identifies, which is highly problematic because not all individuals’ gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth. For example, if someone presents as more gender ambiguous, then whatever the staff member perceives their sex to be, is what floor they will be placed on. This increases the risk for gender discrimination and gender violence to occur within shelters. It also creates significant barriers to access for genderqueer and gender non-conforming individuals, and individuals who are in the early stages of their transition.
The need for transgender youth to have access to health care professionals who have a comprehensive understanding of trans-related issues and transition-related health care is crucial. The health care needs of trans youth differ from those of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, whether they are experiencing homelessness or not. For example, trans youth may need transition related health care, including access to hormones or surgery, or help getting ID and legal name change sorted out. The lack of specialized health care services for trans youth often results in youth turning to unmonitored street suppliers for transition-related treatment, which can have severe health complications (Quintana et al., 2010). The complexity of these needs intensifies when one is homeless and does not have money, a health card, or a support network.
Being a young person is scary, regardless of your sexual or gender identity. Being a young person who deviates from the norm is terrifying because our culture pathologizes almost every feeling and behaviour that human beings are capable of expressing. The extreme pathologization of gender makes it even more difficult for people to bring their full authentic selves to programs and support services, and to come out as transgender.
Solutions to these issues include practice and policy changes, but first and foremost, people must be respected and treated in their self-identified gender. For example, if someone says that they identify as male, then address them with male pronouns. If someone says that they identify as female, then address them with female pronouns. If someone says that they identify as genderqueer and prefer gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, then address them using they.
Shelters and support services need to be equipped with gender-neutral washrooms. Single occupancy washrooms can be easily converted into a gender-neutral washroom by replacing the female and male silhouette signs with an all gender inclusive sign.
Taking the time to listen to trans youths’ perspectives and needs will help service providers create services that are safe, accessible, and supportive of trans and gender non-conforming youth.
On this day, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, take the time to honour the lives of those who have been killed as a result of anti-trans violence and hatred. Do your part to help end transphobia, not only on November 20, but every day.
Transphobia is an everyday reality for too many individuals.
Transphobia destroys people’s lives.
It is dangerous, toxic, violent, and leads to suicide.
Transphobia kills, period.
Photos credits: Flickr/cuppojoe_trips, hollylay, jkunz
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.