Research Matters Blog
March is International Red Cross month so it seems like a good time to examine the issue of homelessness as a disaster. The Red Cross is one of the largest providers of disaster response across the world and this section of their infographic shows just how often they respond to disasters across the world.
So what does this have to do with homelessness?
The language of disaster has been used in conjunction with homelessness for a number of years. Perhaps best known in this realm is the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) which was co-founded by street nurse Cathy Crowe, who in 1998 — after witnessing the ice storms in Eastern Ontario and Quebec — wondered why homelessness was treated so differently when the needs were the same. They released a National Disaster Declaration and a State of Emergency Statement declaring homelessness in Canada a national disaster. This was endorsed by the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of Canadian of Municipalities as well as individuals, faith groups, community organizations, labour unions and municipalities across the country. Some of the issues that TDRC addressed during its 14 year tenure included disaster-related issues such as extreme heat, pandemic flu, TB epidemic and homeless deaths.
Individuals and families are made homeless by accidents or natural and technological disasters, day-in and day-out. Sometimes these are small, single-family house fires. Other times they are large, community-wide natural disasters such as the 2011 wildfires in Slave Lake or the floods in Calgary or in Toronto this past summer or the disaster caused by the train derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac Mégantic. When we see a disaster caused by nature it is easy to sympathize with those affected because the circumstances are obviously outside of their control. It is often harder to do this with homelessness because the individual factors leading to homelessness often get more attention than the system failures or structural factors at play. We need to remember that people experiencing homelessness are also displaced in large-scale disasters and will have a harder time recovering and rebuilding their lives. They may even be some of the responders.
Given that homelessness isn’t always the result of individual actions or behaviours (and is very rarely a deliberate choice) it is important that people affected by homelessness are treated with dignity and respect. In our recent report, “Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada”, Steve Gaetz says (in talking about wildfires in Kelowna and Slave Lake):
“Both of these events were devastating for the communities’ residents. They lost their homes, their possessions and their communities. In the face of both tragedies a rapid crisis response was quickly implemented. People displaced by the fire were relocated to other communities and provided temporary emergency shelter in motels, school gymnasiums, local hockey arenas and, in many cases, slept on cots or mats…But, imagine for a second that the individuals and families in Kelowna or Slave Lake were still living in hockey arenas or motels all these years later. That would seem shocking and absurd and most of us would see this as the complete failure of our emergency response – that we really, really let these people down. So why are we satisfied with an emergency response to youth homelessness that allows you people to languish in shelters for years at a time, entrenching them in street life, keeping them from school and undermining their ability to move into adulthood in a health and fulfilling way?”
This difference was echoed by Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, during the release of “The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013” report in June. At the press conference releasing the report, Richter stated (as reported in the Toronto Star):
“The results paint a picture of a disaster in communities across the country. In a natural disaster, the loss of housing or life happens because of a fire or flood or something like that. In the unnatural disaster of homelessness, the same things are happening, but it's happening because of poverty, disability, addiction, mental illness and trauma. But whereas natural disasters are met with emergency response plans to get people back to their normal lives, the response to homelessness is stuck in crisis mode.”
16 years after the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee started talking about homelessness as a disaster, it is still a critical issue. 200,000 people are homeless every year; 30,000 on any given night (and up to 50,000 in hidden homelessness). We need to reframe the way we think about this issue.
Awhile back I was at the warming centre at Toronto’s Metro Hall when I saw an individual asleep underneath a Canadian flag. It instantly made me think of a seminal image from Hurricane Katrina of an elderly woman wrapped in an American flag blanket. And it made me wonder, again, why is one considered a disaster and one not?
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at email@example.com and we will provide a research-based answer.
The YWCA is “the oldest and largest women’s multi service organization”. The YWCA has continued to be vocal in their opposition to violence against women. This infographic is important for the community, researchers and service providers who work with people experiencing homelessness. Abuse continues to be a leading pathway to homelessness in Canada. Research found that as many as three quarters of women who use shelters have been the victims of abuse. A large majority, 2 out of 3 women, were fleeing current spouses or partners.
Emergency shelters are important resources for women leaving unsafe housing and unsafe relationships. The high numbers of individuals that still utilize the resources demonstrate the continued need for specific interventions. The needs of women and children are complex and differ from the needs of other people experiencing homelessness. Statistics Canada reported that the number of shelter beds has been increasing in the past 10 years with funding provided by municipalities and charities. Less funding is available by provincial governments.
While 100,000 women and children use shelters, this is estimated to only account for 10% of women who leave their homes due to abuse. The lack of affordable housing and other accommodations is one of the chief reasons that women and their children return to abusive relationships, exposing themselves to further violence. Almost half of the women admitted to emergency shelters were with their children. The women wanted to protect their children from witnessing the abuse they were experiencing, and protect them from psychologically or physically abusive situations. Despite these high numbers, only 25% had reported the abuse to police, and 16% had laid charges.
The YWCA published a report entitled ‘Life Beyond Shelters’, that highlights a number of important policy problems related to experiences of homelessness for women and their children. The YWCA recommended a variety of reforms that can help prevent homelessness.
Some of these include:
- Making information on safe and affordable housing easier to access, even for those who are not in shelters.
- Prioritizing intake in emergency shelters make sure that women and children who are in urgent need have access to beds.
- Amendments to eligibility criteria for subsidized housing
While this infographic is helpful, I also found additional explanations in the newly released report Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada by Stephen Gaetz. Causes of homelessness are not only individual and relational, but also the result of structural factors and system failures. It is important to continue to provide interventions that allow people to safely escape abusive relationships without risking homelessness.
Research consistently points to the high percentage of homeless youth who have had some involvement with child protection services, including foster care, group home placements or youth custodial centres. For instance, in three separate studies, the percentage of homeless youth who reported involvement with foster care or group homes ranged from 41 to 43 percent.
It is both the experience of being in child protection, and the transitions from protection to independence, that account for many of these problems. Some young people choose to leave because of bad experiences and inadequate support in group homes or in foster care. Other youth simply ‘age out’* of the foster care system and are left to fend for themselves, lacking necessary resources and never having been prepared for independent living at such a young age.
Difficult transitions from care often result in a range of negative outcomes, such as homelessness, unemployment, lack of educational engagement and achievement, involvement in corrections, lack of skills and potentially, a life of poverty. Many young people who leave care fail to make the transition to independent living because of underdeveloped living skills, inadequate education, lower levels of physical and emotional well-being and lack of supports and resources that most young people rely on when moving into adulthood.
It is also important to note that in many jurisdictions, child protection legislation has not kept pace with the social and economic changes that make it much more difficult for young people to live independently at an early age. Over 40% of young Canadians (between the ages of 20 and 29) live with their parents because of the high cost of housing, poor labour market prospects and the need for additional educational qualifications. Child protection services that cut off support for young people at the age of 18, or even 21, leave young people in jeopardy and at risk of homelessness.
Different countries have addressed these challenges in different ways. The US government enacted the Independent Living Program in 1986 and Title I of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999. These programs are designed to help older youth who are leaving care develop the life skills and habits necessary for independent living. States are required to fund follow-up services for young people who have aged out of care; of those funds up to 30% are earmarked for supportive housing. These acts have been very successful and resulted in the implementation of independent living programs across the country. In addition, the American Bar Association has also produced examples of Model Reforms to Child Protection laws that can be adapted at the State level.
The UK has also attempted to address the problematic discharge of children and youth from care to homelessness through legislation and key reforms to child welfare. After extensive review child welfare services were mandated to provide support for young people up to the age of 18, and in some cases up to 21, in order to support a smooth transition from care. A key piece of legislation was the Children (Leaving Care) Act of 2000, which was further reinforced by the Homelessness Act of 2002 and the Children’s Act of 2004, which prioritized the need for services and support for young people exiting the child welfare system. The Children (Leaving Care) Act ensured that local governments were directly responsible for youth aged 16 and older (up to the age of 18) who left care. Three key supports included: 1) benefits – young people living independently are entitled to income supplements, 2) assessment – to be done when the young person reaches 16, to aid with the transition process and 3) planning – young people are to be assigned personal advisors, who would help establish a ‘pathway plan’ that lasted until the young person reached 21 years of age (to be reviewed with the young person at least every six months). In commenting on the legislation in the context of an international review of best practices, Reid suggests:
“This legislation is effective because it targets core concerns for youth leaving care such as housing, education and employment, finances, and social support with flexible approaches to engage youth in the decision-making processes. The legislation also requires agencies to work cooperatively with each other to meet the needs of youth”.
In Australia, child protection legislation, policies and practices are the responsibility of community services in each state and territory. Different jurisdictions have different programs, and some are supported at the national level. Young people at risk of leaving care, either because they ‘aged out’ or left due to problems with their foster care experience, are offered a more intensive form of support, which is often referred to as the ‘Lead Tenant’ program. This model incorporates elements of treatment foster care, where specially trained caregivers are recruited (and receive higher than usual remuneration) to provide intensive placement support and wrap-around services. Youth are able to stay in the program from 12 months to 24 months. Finally, The Transition to Independent Living Allowance is a national program that provides particularly vulnerable youth who have left care up to $1,000 a month in support for an additional year.
In Canada, child protection is a provincial responsibility, with legislation and practice varying from province to province. Indeed, many provinces continually update their legislation. The recent Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System outlined a number of key recommendations from former crown wards for updating provincial legislation. Irwin Elman, director of the Office for the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, argues that effective reforms, including extending the age of child welfare support to 25, would cost about 26 million dollars, but see a savings of 132 million dollars over 40 years.
Reforming Child Protection
An effective response to youth homelessness must necessarily incorporate reforms to child protection legislation and services. In considering what is known about reforming child protection internationally, and in light of the recommendations of the Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth it is proposed that effective reforms should include the following elements.
Child protection legislation and policy should:
Child protection services should:
FROM: Gaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Homeless Hub Research Report Series.
Do we really need to focus on youth homelessness? Seriously, shouldn’t we be putting our energies into addressing the complex needs of adults who have been homeless for years and years?
These are questions that I get asked quite often. There is often a sense that young people wind up on the streets attracted by the excitement and independence of the city, or because they just don’t want to “do the dishes”. It’s assumed that they’re bratty kids, who just need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and “get on with it”. The lack of interest in youth homelessness is also reflected in the fact that in many communities, youth homelessness is very much a secondary priority. In some places, there is no response to youth homelessness. That is, there are no differentiated services for young people who are homeless, so that if you are 18 or 20, the only option you may have is an all-ages shelter.
I think we are making a big mistake when we avoid making the solving of youth homelessness a priority. In fact, there is a need for a coalition or a movement to end youth homelessness. Here is why. First, youth homelessness is very different than adult homelessness. Young people who wind up homelessness typically leave home where there were caregivers responsible for rent, maintenance, food etc. Young people generally leave without living skills to live independently. Many adolescents and young adults are also going through important physical, cognitive, emotional and social developmental changes. This has an impact on how young people transition to independence. We also need to understand that the causes of youth homelessness are different – family conflict and for many, a history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, often drives young people into homelessness. It is important to point out that many young people (over 40%) on the streets were once in the care of child protection services.
The second thing to consider is that it is very difficult for any young person today to live independently. Results from the 2011 census show that 42.3 percent of all Canadians between 20 and 29 live at home with their parents. This is not necessarily because they want to but rather because their options are so limited. You see, the world has changed soooo dramatically since the 1950s, when it was possible to quit school at 16, get a good paying factory job and rent a house. Now, people are staying in school longer and longer because credentialism matters so much (the drop out rate in Canada is now less than 9%, although it is 65% for homeless youth). Well-paying jobs are scarce, and in most regions young people have few employment options other than low wage, part-time work. At the same time, we now have an affordability crisis in Canada. Moving out isn’t what it used to be.
If we can accept that all of this is true, it begs the question of how we respond to youth homelessness. I would argue that because the causes and conditions of youth homelessness are distinct from that experienced by adults, we need different solutions. We need to stop taking adult models – emergency shelters, day programs etc., and by simply changing the age mandate, create ‘homelessness junior’.
No, we need to think about this differently. We need communities across the country to develop dedicated community plans to end youth homelessness, supported by all levels of government. These plans should shift the focus from emergency services, to prevention (including family reconnection), and models of accommodation and supports that work for adolescents and young adults. We need to ensure that institutions like child protection, corrections and mental health ensure that young people are able to transition to safe and appropriate housing, rather than homelessness. We need to ensure that all of our responses put the needs of the developing adolescent first, and make the goal of the work to be growing into a healthy adulthood, not simply training youth to become ‘independent’. We need to put education back at the centre of the work, as Canadians generally understand how important this is not only to future earning potential, but also to health and well-being.
As communities, and as a country, we need to take the response to youth homelessness very seriously indeed. I have been around this issue long enough that I think it is no longer tolerable to let young people languish in emergency shelters for years on end. For if we continue to do this, there is only one outcome - we are creating the next generation of chronically homeless adults.
The complete Coming of Age: Reimagining the Responses to Youth Homelessness in Canada report will be available to download on Monday, March 3rd.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
Next week we are releasing our newest Homeless Hub report “Coming of Age: Reimagining Our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada” by Stephen Gaetz. Youth homelessness is an increasing issue in Canadian society and one that requires distinct responses. Steve will discuss this more in the Friday’s Ask the Hub blog post and the report goes into even greater detail on this topic.
Today’s infographic designed by the Homeless Hub team looks at some key demographics and issues affecting youth experiencing homelessness in Canada, all drawing on statistics in the report to be released on Monday, March 3rd.
One statistic that really struck me in reading the report is that youth who live at home (failure to launch), or return home (boomerang effect), between the ages of 20-29, has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. In 1981 only 26.9% of young adults lived at home, while now that number is 42.3%! The lack of affordable housing (or housing vacancies generally), combined with low levels of income (including minimum wage), increasing credentialism, high costs of post-secondary education, shrinking economy etc. have all combined to lead to empty nests being not quite so empty.
The infographic also highlights the diversity of homeless youth. Responses and solutions need to recognize the over representation of Aboriginal youth (or other racialized groups like black youth in Toronto), the high number of LGBTQ youth (25-40%) and the 2:1 ratio of males to females. Additionally, 40% of homeless youth experience mental health issues, which increases to 70% for those who have been homeless four years or longer (this compares to only 10-20% of housed youth).
It is also important to recognize that our own systems and institutions contribute to making youth homeless. I remember when I was a teen living on independent welfare, how hard it was to continue in school. The high dropout rate of homeless youth reflects this reality, which has continued over 25 years later.
A significant proportion of youth experiencing homelessness have experienced the child welfare or (juvenile) corrections systems as well. Discharge planning and intensive follow-up case management supports need to be built into these systems.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to ending youth homelessness. We can learn from the solutions and strategies outlined in the report and the successes from Australia, the UK and the US who are already entrenched in their responses to youth homelessness.