Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/The Homeless Hub
December 01, 2016
Tags: students

There are many ways that students can get involved in volunteering with homeless serving agencies and organizations. This blog post details the activities of two student-led initiatives at York University working with people experiencing homelessness. We interviewed Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska from Keep Toronto Warm and Awo Dirie from Fix the 6ix to find out more about the work that these organizations are doing, and how young people can get involved in volunteering. 

Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska from Keep Toronto Warm and Awo Dirie from Fix the 6ix

Keep Toronto Warm

Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska are co-directors of Keep Toronto Warm, an initiative that began in November of last year. Keep Toronto Warm works with roughly 15 volunteers at any given time to distribute ‘warmth packages’ to the unsheltered homeless. Student volunteers are at the forefront of all distributions and events, and all donations received go toward purchasing items for their warmth packages. One package includes 2 pairs of warm socks, a hot beverage gift card, a warm blanket and a personalized letter from the donor. 

“We recognize that we cannot solve the larger political and social issues that cause homelessness” says co-director, Samantha Memedoska, “but we can give people an immediate resource that they may need, like a pair of warm socks or a hot drink.” 

In September of this year they launched Keep Toronto Fed, a related initiative that aims to address food insecurity in the city. After collecting perfectly good food deemed by retailers to be ‘unsellable’ (for example, one or two day-old produce that would otherwise go to waste), a team of dedicated students distribute packed lunches around the city. Their first distribution was a huge success, thanks to generous donations from The Great Canadian Bagel company and the work of student volunteers. 

Fix the 6ix

Awo Dirie is the Assistant Director of Fix the 6ix, an organization that leads two separate programs that serve Torontonians in need; the ReGiftcard Program, and 100 for the Homies. Fix the 6ix repurposes the cash balance on unwanted and partially used gift cards through their ReGiftcard Program. To date, they have collected over 500 gift cards with over $2500 in credit.

In addition to providing meals to people both on the street and in shelters, they also purchase clothing and hygiene items for Sistering 24 hour women’s drop in, and donate Cineplex movie tickets to Eva’s Place Homeless Youth Shelter. Although they recognize that their programs offer only “temporary relief to food insecurity” through the continued efforts of student volunteers, they’ve supported over 20 shelters across the GTA. 

As many Toronto Raptors fans know, after every 100+ point home win, attending fans can take their tickets to redeem a free slice of pizza at participating Pizza Pizza locations. Through the 100 for the Homies program, Fix the 6ix collects tickets donated by fans, and distributes them at Toronto homeless shelters. Since April of the 2015/2016 season 100 for the Homies has collected 13,787 tickets donated by raptors fans. Sometimes shelters simply don’t have the capacity to properly store donated food, especially if it's highly perishable. 100 for the Homies offers a solution to this issue. At shelters, residents can make the autonomous decision whether or not to redeem their ticket for a slice of pizza.  

After providing us with some background information on their organizations, we asked Samantha, Omar and Awo to answer a few questions to get a better understanding of the work that their organizations do, and their future goals.

What inspired you to set up your organization?

As a group we can provide immediate protection from the cold; short-term comfort and access to resources for future support.

Keep Toronto Warm: The needs of our community inspired the start of this organization, and continues to inspire us everyday. Specifically, we were triggered by an article that we read which highlighted the death of two homeless individuals during the winter stemming from the lack of resources and space available in shelters. It was not difficult to walk the streets of the downtown core and notice that the community lacked the essentials to survive. 

Fix the 6ix: It was Deanna Lentini, a student of Kinesiology and Health Science and Founding Director of Fix the 6ix, whose eagerness to make change inspired us. Her overall goal was to make the city a better place by supporting our most in-need residents; Fix the 6ix was prompted by the passion she had for her own town. She wanted to give others an easy and ‘no-cost’ way to help those in-need. 

How do you think your organization is able to help and impact people experiencing homelessness?

Keep Toronto Warm: Our organization is not able to address the structural and larger political issues involved in homelessness, it is however, able to tackle some of the more immediate forces directly affecting the community. As a group we can provide immediate protection from the cold; short-term comfort and access to resources for future support.

Fix the 6ix: We work to advocate for and serve the homeless community, and we also help to connect people experiencing homelessness to shelters across Toronto. Ultimately, although we hope to make as many donations as we can to those in need, we also want to start a meaningful discussion about the issue of homelessness in Toronto, and what we can do to change it. 

How can young people become involved?

Keep Toronto Warm: Youth can get involved by lending time to organizations helping to combat larger social issues in the community, like homelessness. Young people often have many resources available to them through their schools and communities, and consequently it’s not too difficult to find support if they would like to start programs like ours. 

Fix the 6ix: Getting youth involved in anything is a great way to increase visibility and also a great way to bring in people who really want to help. Youth bring in fresh and innovative ideas that can also help an organization to grow and develop. If you are interested in volunteering with either of our programs, you can fill out our online form and email it to

. Youth bring in fresh and innovative ideas that can also help an organization to grow and develop.

What are the current and future goals that your organization is focused on?

Keep Toronto Warm: Our main goal is to positively impact the lives of people without shelter during the winter by providing them with essential care packages. In the future, we hope to spread awareness in our communities; by educating and highlighting the issue of homelessness, we can hopefully motivate others to get involved in whatever way that they can.  

Fix the 6ix: Our ultimate goal is to offer visibility and inspire a new understanding of the homeless community in Toronto. In line with our values of promoting equity, inclusion and the importance of social capital, we hope to break the stigma that so often surrounds the issue of homelessness. We would love to focus on working with different shelters in the future, and also connect with universities and colleges outside of York University. 

Other ways to get involved

Through volunteering with organizations like Fix the 6ix and Keep Toronto Warm, not only are students helping people in need, they’re also fostering empathy and self-efficacy. It is fantastic to see initiatives like these succeeding; they play a crucial role in raising homelessness awareness and challenging stigma and discrimination. 

In addition to volunteering, other things must be done. In our State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report, we emphasize that ending homelessness means doing things differently, and not simply managing the problem through relying on emergency services and supports. An alternative is to look at approaches that emphasize prevention and affordable housing solutions. By building on the success of previous interventions that have proven to be successful, like Housing First for example, this can lead to real reductions in homelessness. If we truly want to prevent and end homelessness in Canada, we must also consider the unique needs and circumstances of key populations to create effective, thus tailored, responses to homelessness.

This year, the federal government launched a consultation process to inform Canada’s first National Housing Strategy. On November 22nd, What We Heard: Shaping Canada’s National Housing Strategy was released, reflecting the views, ideas and insights of thousands of Canadians who participated in the consultations. Many respondents agreed that a fundamental goal of a National Housing Strategy should be to end homelessness in Canada, and to prioritize the needs of Canadians experiencing homelessness. 

Although the consultation process is over, you can still write to your local MP, telling them that ending homelessness should be a top priority, and urging the Government to take immediate action on housing with a focused effort on ending homelessness. 

Education and advocacy are also critical tools that contribute to the national dialogue on ending homelessness. Having conversations with others about homelessness can help to dispell myths and challenge stereotypes. Homelessness, despite its often very visible presence in urban areas, remains a commonly misunderstood social issue. You can learn more about topics, solutions and plans to end homelessness in our About Homelessness section. 

We’ve also published blog posts in the past that provide more information about what you can do to address homelessness in your community: 

We would like to think Omar, Samantha and Awo for taking the time to meet with us and for sharing information about the work that they’re doing. If you’d like to learn more about Fix the 6ix and Keep Toronto Warm, visit their websites, linked throughout this blog post. 

University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
November 30, 2016

On the Blog Series

As efforts to end youth homelessness gain traction across the country, finding and implementing interventions that work for young people becomes increasingly important for communities. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of work to do for those of us in the research community to capture effective practice, and translate it in terms that make sense to policy makers, service providers, youth and funders.

With the support of the Homeless Hub, Government of Alberta, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and the Safe Haven Foundation, this blog series aims to shed light on an evidence-based approach to serving youth grounded in the Core Principles of the Foyer Model from Calgary, AB called Haven’s Way.

Haven's Way Evaluation reportIn this first blog, I provide an overview on the Haven’s Way program model – a supportive housing program for youth operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary (BGCC) and the key findings of the evaluation research. The evaluation report is now available to download and will also be presented in today’s webinar at 1PM (ET), for which you can sign up here.

It is important to complement the research perspective with of those of people ‘living’ Haven’s Way: the staff and youth residing in this home. To this end, this blog is followed by one from Heidi Walter, Manager of Youth Housing at Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and Ange Neil, a youth participant. The fourth blog post will look at the perspective of the funder and will be written by Karen Sherbut, the co-founder of the Safe Haven Foundation.

In the final blog in the series, I will provide some of the key elements relevant to practitioners and funders interested in exploring the model’s application in their contexts. Here, I try to discern what key elements are ‘essential’ to the success of the program in achieving stability and independence for youth.

Introducing Haven’s Way

In 2015, at the request of Alberta Human Services and BGCC, I had the privilege to evaluate a long-standing program delivering innovative and effective supportive home-like environment to young women in Calgary since 2000. The residents at Haven’s Way share a duplex with Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary staff – a House Parent and a Supportive Roommate. An additional Case Manager supports the live-in staff and the six youth in the program at any one time.

The program was founded by the Safe Haven Foundation to offer a home for young women (14-24) who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. This risk has presented itself in many different ways including sexual, mental and physical abuse, sexual exploitation, neglect, mental health, drug addiction and involvement with street life. The program offers a safe home environment, surrounded by positive adult role models that support them to thrive in their daily lives and focus on their education.

Given the complexities of youth’s reported histories of family breakdown, trauma, mental health and addiction concerns prior to entering the program, Haven’s Way approach provides them with a home where can begin to heal, increase their level of education and develop the skills and supports that will transition them into adult self-sufficiency.  From this perspective, the program aligns with the premises of the Foyer model and its focus on healthy youth development.

The youth receive basic living supports, as well as case management that follows the stages of change framework, is trauma-informed, and youth-centered. Youth receive individualized, flexible support that tailored in focus and intensity, molding to participant life circumstance and changing interests.

Evaluation Highlights

The evaluation of the program included interviews with staff and youth (current and past participants), the network of professionals who provided referral and additional supports to the program, funders and other researchers.

In short, the 100-page evaluation report boils down to this: the program works. It works from the perspective of youth, staff and external stakeholders. These views are also validated by 15 years of data and case file documentation on 70 different youth who went through the program.

Here are some highlights:

  • Of the 18 youth evaluation participants, 100% reported improved housing stability, education and employment outcomes as result of program participation. In addition, 94% reported a very high level of satisfaction with the approach.
  • Staff and youth confirm that for 2014-15, all but one program participant residing at Haven’s Way maintained housing stability and pursued educational and employment goals actively.
  • Of the 11 graduates who left the program between 2012 and 2015, all but one had stable housing – living on their own rental accommodations, reuniting with their family or moving on to live with another natural support.

What’s important is to note that support doesn’t stop when youth move out. Although the 11 graduates had left an average of two years prior to the evaluation, staff maintained contact with them and were able to report the current housing, education and employment situation.

  • 63.3% of the 11 past participants had graduated high school, were pursuing post-secondary/trade, and one was in high school.
  • All but two (81.8%) were employed either part- or full-time
  • Only one (9.1%) of 11 exits was considered negative as the participant left without a transition plan and has since experienced episodes of homelessness and housing instability.

Essential Program Elements

Beyond assessing the program’s effectiveness and areas for improvement, I also tried to dig deeper into the key elements that made it successful. These are critical considerations if we consider expanding or replicating the model for other popula­tions. A number of features were mentioned as essential by youth, staff, the founders and other stakeholders, which are consistent with youth perspectives on program strengths, as summarized below. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; York University
November 28, 2016

Indigenous homelessness in Canada is a massive ongoing problem.

One only has to look at population and percentage numbers to deduce this as fact. In urban settings, 1 in 15 Indigenous peoples are homeless, this compared to 1 in 128 for the general population. Put another way, in some Canadian cities such as Yellowknife or Whitehorse Indigenous peoples make up 90 percent of the homeless population. Places like Thunder Bay and Winnipeg fair somewhat better; an average of 50 percent of the homeless are Indigenous. In Toronto, Canada’s largest urban centre, Indigenous peoples constitute around 15 percent of the city’s homeless, even though they make up only around 0.5 of the total population. Clearly, it’s an out of proportion and big issue. 

The Indian Act, on and off reserve housing, programs aimed at curbing urban Indigenous homelessness, and the “system” in general has, it would seem, failed Indigenous peoples nation-wide and made them housing insecure from Vancouver to Halifax.

But is that it?

Can the problem of Indigenous homelessness be chalked up to what we see on Canadian streets? Is it just unsheltered Indigenous peoples sleeping on the nation’s city sidewalks, alcoves, and stairs? Or is there more going on? Better yet, do we as Canadians even understand what Indigenous homelessness is? Has it even been defined properly? Without knowing what Indigenous homelessness truly is, how are dollars and policy supposed to fix the problem? As the old adage goes, you can’t fight against something you don’t understand.

These are the hard questions and realizations the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness began pondering shortly after the 2012 launch of the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. We quickly realized that Indigenous homelessness didn’t fit neatly into the four typologies of the Canadian definition—Unsheltered, Emergency Sheltered, Provisionally Sheltered, and At Risk of Homelessness. There was something more going on, much more.

The Observatory concluded that to solve the problem of Indigenous homelessness we had try something new, we had to define Indigenous Homelessness from an Indigenous perspective. The old way just wasn’t working. To do this, we believed that we needed to listen to and consult with Indigenous peoples and let them tell us what they understood Indigenous homeless to be.

Who better than the Indigenous communities to define Indigenous homelessness?

Part of looking at Indigenous homelessness from an Indigenous perspective involved finding an Indigenous person with cultural competency who had both lived experience and academic training. In January 2016 the COH hired me, Jesse Thistle, a Cree-Metis-Scot PhD student and consumer survivor of the streets. The Observatory knew of my lived experience and scholastic training as they had worked with me since 2012 on the book Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice.

From the outset, I employed an Indigenous methodology in the work of building a definition of Indigenous Homelessness. On February 22nd 2016 Stephen Gaetz, the director of the Observatory, and I entered into a pipe ceremony with Cree knowledge keeper Jenny Blackbird at York University at the sacred fire at the site of the former Tipi behind Osgoode Hall.

Blackbird opened with a prayer and welcoming drum song. She said her spirit helper—the woodpecker—might appear, and if it did, it would be a really good sign to continue our work on the Indigenous homelessness definition.

No sooner than she finished the opening smudge and prayer did the woodpecker show up—we all understood that as a sign that the Observatory was meant to do this good work.

Blackbird also noted that we should be aware that the work is representative of bringing fire to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, meaning it will illuminate the issue of Indigenous Homelessness and create bonds of kinship between not only Indigenous peoples, but all Canadians. That comment stayed with me and got me thinking.

Community engagement and consultation have been key components of building the definition. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit populations in Canada are vast and diverse—north-south, east-west, rural-urban, and from all places in the country. From the outset, I tried to consult with all of these peoples.

In January 2016, we put a call out for ten National Steering Committee members. The ongoing job of the National Steering committee members has been to brainstorm with me to write draft definitions. They also edit and provide suggestions. It is a very loose, organic kind of consultation. The Steering Committee is comprised of scholars and frontline workers who work on Indigenous Homelessness or who have experienced homelessness. Among them are Trudeau scholar Julie Christiensen, whose research on the northern Dene peoples is invaluable, and Cree-Metis Althea Guiboche, the Bannock Lady of Winnipeg, who both feeds the Indigenous homeless of Winnipeg and knows homelessness from a lived perspective.

Beyond the Steering Committee, there are three more levels of community consultation. The first is the Regional Advisors Committee of 100, who, like the Steering Committee, work with me to develop draft definitions. The next level of consultation is the National Elders Council of 10. The Observatory understands that proper consultation on the Definition must involve the traditional knowledge keepers of Indigenous communities—those being Elders. The Observatory asked that each Steering member provide me with one Elder contact for the National Elders Council to advise us on the final drafts of the definition before it is launched in Fall 2017. We have around three Elders and are looking to expand.

The last level of consultation will be the Town Hall Meetings that the COH plans to open to the public sometime in the spring of 2017. Those who participate will have access to a finalized draft definition that has gone through the three levels of consultation from the Steering Committee, to the Regional Advisors, to the Elders Council.

The concept of “home”

""At the same time that we were setting up comprehensive consultation mechanisms, I was also gathering ideas for a definition of Indigenous homelessness. The breakthrough came when I began looking at the concept of “Home.”

Western understandings of “home” usually refer to a building or structure of habitation. In contrast, Indigenous worldviews see “home” as a web of relationships that involves connections to human kinship networks; relations to animals, plants, spirits, and elements; relationship to the Earth, lands, waters, and territories; and connection to traditional stories, songs, teachings, names, and ancestors. All these aspects of the circle of interconnectedness are known as “home” in Indigenous societies and worldviews. They are described in Cree and Michif as miyo wahkohtowin (kinship relationships), in Lakota as mitakuye oyasin (All My Relations), and in Inuktitut as ilagiit (kindred).

Thus, I came to the conclusion, with Althea’s and the Steering Committee’s help, that Indigenous “homelessness” has been incorrectly understood by westerners as “being without a structure of habitation” or “being roofless,” whereas Indigenous homelessness from an Indigenous perspective is really about being without “All My Relations.”

Being without a physical structure is only a secondary symptom of the real cause of Indigenous homelessness—being without social, spiritual, emotional, and physical relationships. I have since asked Indigenous consumer survivors of the streets if they agree with this interpretation and the majority agree that is accurate, and the loss of “All My Relations” has been caused by Canadian colonization.

We are currently on the 24th draft of the definition and we have collectively built it from the ground up. That is, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and communities. We at the COH see ourselves as stewards or conveyors of this community understanding of Indigenous homelessness—they told us and we listened. I’ve presented the definition and its methodology at conferences across the country and some have said our approach is “new” or “fresh” or “innovative” but really it’s not, I simply asked the people who know the issue of Indigenous Homelessness best—Indigenous peoples—and asked them to define it.

If you’d like to take part in writing the Indigenous Homelessness definition and/or to be on our Regional Advisors’ Committee, contact me, Jesse Thistle, your favorite cousin, at

Kinana’skomitin, Marcee, Miigwetch, Nia:weh, Ch’alechem, Kuk’stemic, Wela’lin, Thank you.

Though few evictions end in homelessness, it is clear that many episodes of homelessness begin with eviction. Preventing eviction is key to preventing homelessness – but how can services reach tenants facing eviction in time to help stabilize their housing?

Ontario’s Tenant Duty Counsel Program (TDCP) is doing just that. The TDCP is funded by Legal Aid Ontario to provide legal assistance to tenants who come before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) at any of its 44 sites across the province. Legal workers, most of them from local legal clinics, provide advice, referral, and occasionally representation to tenants on-site at the LTB. The vast majority of these tenants are facing eviction: of 81,748 LTB cases in 2013-2014, 91 percent were landlord applications for eviction, 75 percent of these for non-payment of rent. 

A new report on the TDCP demonstrates that eviction prevention is a vital component of homelessness prevention. Based on a survey of more than 200 tenants accessing TDCP services in Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton, as well as interviews with service providers and legal workers at sites across the province, the report sheds light on the circumstances of tenants facing eviction, the supports they require, and the system changes that are needed to break the cycle of eviction and homelessness.

It’s already well-known that tenants are an economically disadvantaged group, with average incomes significantly lower than those of homeowners. But in spite of tenants’ generally low incomes, and ever-increasing rents, only a fraction of tenancies are ever threatened with eviction at the Landlord and Tenant Board. What sets these ones apart?

As expected, a key factor in housing insecurity for tenants is poverty: three-quarters of tenants surveyed had incomes below the Low-Income Cut-Off, and almost half were spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent. 

But for many tenants who access TDCP services, it appears that poverty is only one factor in their risk of eviction. Half of all respondents had faced previous discrimination in housing, on the basis of their race, gender, income, and other grounds. Almost half identified with a racialized community. More than one in three said that they, or a member of their household, had a disability – in most cases, a mental health or cognitive disability. 

Most striking of all, two out of three tenants surveyed had been homeless in the past.  Half of all tenants surveyed had stayed at someone else’s place because they had no home of their own; 43 percent had left their home because it wasn’t safe for them; 31 percent had spent time at a shelter; and 24 percent had slept outside, or in a place not meant for human habitation.

In spite of the deep vulnerability the survey reveals, service providers interviewed for the study said that their most disadvantaged clients never even make it to the LTB. Many with histories of homelessness, mental health and addictions issues, and other disabilities are in very precarious tenancies – renting a room in someone else’s place, staying in a rooming house or apartment only as long as the landlord “lets” them. Even those whose tenancies fall under the protection of the Rental Tenancies Act are usually not aware that there are legal remedies available to them – or past conflicts with the law make them reluctant to go to “court.” If the person they are renting from tells them to leave, they leave. 

Tenants with histories of homelessness are not the only ones who walk away before they get their day in court. Housing workers and legal clinics are concerned about an epidemic of economic evictions of low-income tenants, especially in large cities. Often tenants will leave their home after receiving an eviction notice but prior to a hearing application. This can be for many reasons: they cannot afford the rent, their apartment is in serious disrepair, they are afraid to attend a hearing. Once the unit is vacated, the landlord can raise the rent an unlimited amount – so tenants living in gentrifying neighbourhoods are especially at risk.

Of those who do receive a notice of hearing, fifty percent of tenants do not attend at the LTB, most for the same reasons listed above. One legal worker interviewed expressed the frustration of seeing tenants evicted in absentia: “Two things cause people not to go to their LTB hearing: they believe the landlord will be a hundred percent effective, and the forms they receive from the LTB read extremely scary … That’s why people don’t show up. Often it’s over stupid amounts of money, like $600. I hear the case and I think, ‘I really wish that tenant had shown up’.” Unfortunately, though, the Landlord and Tenant Board does not track the results of eviction applications – so there is no way of knowing how many tenants in Ontario are actually evicted each year, whether before their hearing or after.

For those who do make it to the LTB and manage to access Tenant Duty Counsel services there, the threat of eviction creates enormous stress and anxiety, which impedes their ability to represent themselves in the intimidating environment of the Landlord and Tenant Board. With current resources, though, Tenant Duty Counsel are only able to provide full representation to a small fraction of tenants they serve – most receive only legal advice. As several US studies have demonstrated, representation is key to eviction prevention. A key recommendation of the report is that Legal Aid Ontario should increase resources available for representation, particularly for vulnerable tenants. 

But as the report suggests, many tenants facing eviction need more than just legal assistance to help them maintain their housing: they need emotional support at the LTB, financial assistance to pay off arrears, and ongoing services to stabilize their tenancy. Some Tenant Duty Counsel sites have found innovative ways to meet these complex needs. York Region’s Eviction Prevention Program, for example, funds a social worker who works in tandem with Tenant Duty Counsel to support tenants facing addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, and risk of homelessness. This program supports tenants at their LTB hearing, provides case management and referral to other services, helps them find new housing if necessary, and follows up three months and six months later to ensure that housing is still stable. The City of Toronto should consider incorporating this promising model in the new Eviction Prevention Strategy it is developing. 

But local service improvements can only do so much. The eviction of vulnerable tenants into homelessness is a systemic problem, and it requires system-level solutions. Another key recommendation from the TDCP review is to introduce a diversion program at the Landlord and Tenant Board. Similar to mental health diversion programs and Gladue courts in the criminal justice system, a diversion program at the Landlord and Tenant Board would be mandated to respond more holistically to vulnerable tenants facing eviction. Instead of evicting tenants into homelessness, a diversion program would put supports in place to help stabilize the tenancy. 

Many advocates interviewed for the report noted that as it currently functions, the Landlord and Tenant Board is like an eviction machine, in which vulnerable tenants face near-certain eviction unless they have adequate legal and social supports. This needs to change if the Province is serious about its commitment to end homelessness in ten years. “We need a system to catch the person in the middle,” the York Region social worker says, “not let them fall all the way through.”

In the end, though, the vast majority of evictions are economic, and governments must address the structural economic factors that cause them. The Province must reinstate rent control on vacant units and units built after 1991. It must also increase incomes by raising minimum wages, protecting precarious workers, and and reversing cuts to income security programs. And the federal government’s forthcoming National Housing Strategy must demonstrate political will to address the crisis in affordable housing, through major investments in affordable and social housing. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University
November 16, 2016

Thank you to the Home Depot Canada Foundation who generously funded this study and report. With their support, we have a better collective understanding of youth homelessness in Canada.

Today, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada release Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey. As the first pan-Canadian study of youth homelessness, Without a Home provides a comprehensive picture of youth homelessness across the country. Drawing on the experiences of 1,103 youth from 49 different communities across 10 provinces and territories, this study vividly demonstrates why a new approach to youth homelessness is urgently needed. 

Our findings indicate that we are waiting too long to intervene when it comes to youth homelessness. In many communities, services for young people who experience homelessness are not available until the age 16 or even 18. Without a Home demonstrates that by that time, a great deal of harm has already occurred. 

Who is homeless? 

The homeless youth population in Canada is quite diverse in terms of age, gender, and ethno-racial background. Our findings show that at a national scale, these youth are more likely to belong to groups that experience marginalization and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. It is clear that racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, and transphobia are crucially related to who becomes and remains homeless in Canada. 

Our data indicates that:  

  • LGBTQ2S youth make up almost a third of youth who are homeless
  • Members of racialized communities are overrepresented among homeless youth in Canada (28.2% compared to the Canadian average of 19.1%)
  • Indigenous youth are extremely overrepresented, making up only 4.3% of the Canadian population but 30.6% of the youth homeless population
  • Newcomer youth make up 10.1% of youth who are homeless

The demographics of the youth are displayed in this graphic.

When do youth become homeless? 

For many young people, their first experience of homelessness occurs well before they are entitled to access interventions and supports. A shocking 40.1% of participants became homeless before they were 16, and 10% became homeless before the age of 13. 

Youth who leave home at an earlier age not only experience increased hardship before they become homeless, but they also experience greater adversity once on the streets. For example, youth who leave home at an early age are more likely to: experience multiple episodes of homelessness, be victims of crimes, and experience greater mental health challenges. 40.1% of participants become homeless before 16

Why do youth become homeless? 

Knowing why youth become homeless can help us understand how to prevent and end youth homelessness. Without a Home highlights some of the complex pathways into homelessness for youth. While there are many drivers of youth homelessness, we found three common experiences that youth face: 

1. Housing Instability

Homeless youth often have multiple episodes of homelessness and experience housing instability for years prior to their current experience of homelessness.

  • 75.9% of youth had experienced multiple episodes of homelessness
  • Of those with multiple experiences, 37% had more than 5 experiences
  • Youth who left home before they were 16 were much more likely to experience multiple episodes of homelessness

2. Involvement in Child Protection

A high percentage of homeless youth experience childhood abuse and have involvement with child protection services, often beginning at a very young age.

  • 51.1% experienced physical abuse as a child or adolescent
  • 24% experienced sexual abuse as a child or adolescent
  • 47.5% experienced other forms of violence and abuse as a child or adolescent
  • 57.8% of youth had involvement with child protection services in the past
  • 73.3% of youth who left home before 16 reported involvement with child protection services 

3. Challenges in School

Homeless youth have high drop out rates and experience numerous challenges in school, including bullying, victimization and difficulties related to learning disabilities. 

  • 50% report being tested for a learning disability
  • 83% report experiencing bullying at school either “sometimes” or “often,” 4 times the national average

What do youth experience on the streets? 

Without a Home reveals 7 key ways in which homeless youth in Canada face hardship:

  1. Ongoing housing instability –Over half of youth participants had stayed in more than one location over the previous month, and 10.2% stayed in more than five places.
  2. High levels of chronicity - Over half of participants (54.8%) were chronically homeless, and 13.3% were episodically homeless. Of those who are identified as chronically homeless, 58% reported being homeless for three years or more.
  3. Nutritional vulnerability – While 26.8% of youth reported having access to good quality food when they need it, almost half (46.3%) experience this once a week or less. One third (34.7%) reported having little or no energy on a day-to-day basis.
  4. Declining mental health – A very high percentage of respondents (85.4%) reported high symptoms of distress. A total of 42% reported at least one suicide attempt and 35.2% reported having at least one drug overdose requiring hospitalization.
  5. Low school participation – While the drop out rate in Canada now sits below 9%, for homeless youth the rate is 53.2%. Of those who have dropped out, however, 73.9% would like to return to school.
  6. Unemployment – Three quarters (75.7%) of youth indicated they were unemployed, and only 19.7% currently had jobs. Strikingly, 50.5% of youth participants were not in employment, education, or training.
  7. Criminal victimization – A total of 68.7% of youth had been victims of crime in the last year. While only 7.6% of Canadians report being the victim of a violent crime, 59.6% of homeless youth reported violent victimization in the last year, including high levels of sexual assault.

How can we address youth homelessness? 

Our current systems tend to focus on providing supports downstream, when young people are much older. Rather than focusing on preventing the problem, we are more likely to wait for a major rupture or crisis. This study vividly demonstrates the harm caused by this approach. 

Without a Home proposes a number of interlocking solutions to youth homelessness including:


We cannot end youth homelessness without stopping the flow into homelessness. Many homeless youth cycle in and out of homelessness, school, and work. We must approach each one of these cycles as an opportunity to put prevention strategies in place. Key prevention approaches include Family First, early intervention programs, school-community partnerships, and transitional supports for young people leaving care

Housing First for Youth

Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) means moving youth out of homelessness as quickly as possible with no preconditions. Through HF4Y, young people are provided with a range of housing options to choose from. Key to this approach is that young people are offered supports that can help them maintain housing, learn life skills, have positive relationships with peers and adults, and re-engage with school, training, and/or employment. 

Systems Integration

As opposed to a fragmented collection of services, an integrated systems response requires that programs, services, and service delivery systems are organized at every level – from policy, to intake, to service provision, to client flow – based on the needs of the young person. A key way to implement an integrated systems response is to develop a community plan to prevent and end youth homelessness. 

Who is responsible for addressing youth homelessness? 

The short answer is that all levels of government in Canada are responsible for addressing youth homelessness. 

The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 explored why investing is affordable housing is absolutely necessary to address all types of homelessness. Without a Home adds to this by demonstrating that the unique drivers of youth homelessness (e.g., family breakdown, interpersonal violence, and problematic transitions from government institutions) touch on many key institutions in society, including healthcare, education, child protection, justice, and employment supports, all in addition to housing. 

This means that to address youth homelessness, federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments must take an integrated systems approach. Effective strategies reach across departments and ministries to ensure that solutions are coordinated and services are not delivered in a fragmented or inequitable manner.

Key Recommendations to Government: 

Without a Home highlights the need to focus on prevention. In most cases, youth experiencing homelessness had adults in their lives that knew something was wrong before they became homeless. But, we are not providing these adults - teachers, guidance counselors, community faith leaders, neighbours, coaches, relatives, doctors - the knowledge, supports, or infrastructure to provide support. To do so, we must implement prevention-focused strategies that engage the whole community and are properly resourced by higher levels of government. 

Based on this key finding, Without a Home offers recommendations for all levels of government. The recommendations include:

Government of Canada:

  • Implement a Youth Homelessness Strategy supported by a targeted investment.

Provincial and territorial governments:

  • Implement targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness.
  • Develop strategies to support young people who are under 16 and at risk of homelessness.  
  • Ensure that all young people who are transitioning from child protection services are supported in a way that ensures housing stability and ongoing support.  

Communities and/or municipalities:

  • Plan and implement strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness.  
  • Focus on prevention strategies to move young people out of homelessness instead of expanding emergency services.

By failing to implement more effective strategies to address youth homelessness, we are undermining the human rights of these youth. If we want better outcomes for young people, we must do better. 


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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.