Research Matters Blog
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
Despite the advances in treatment and awareness surrounding mental health issues in recent years, mental illness still carries an enormous amount of stigma. The infographic below, published by Homeless Link UK, provides some details about the complex relationship that exists between mental health and homelessness.
Individuals with mental health issues are more likely to be homeless, as mental illness has a detrimental impact on all aspects of their life. People suffering from poor mental health find it more difficult to maintain close relationships with family and friends. Their cognitive abilities may be affected; making them more likely to misunderstand others and question the motives of members of their support network. Difficulties are also likely to arise at work, as individuals may be unable to deal with workplace stresses. Many ultimately find themselves unable to maintain employment. After looking at how having mental health issues can poorly impact an individual’s life, and understanding that these stressors can pile up, it’s clear why individuals suffering with mental health issues are more likely to be living in critical housing situations.
Homelessness on its own can cause issues in mental health. Transitioning from housing to living on the streets is an enormously stressful and difficult situation. Individuals trying to get off the streets may find that there are few employment, educational, and housing supports in place to help them with their goals. Impediments in the journey from being homeless to living in an adequate housing situation can be demoralizing and depressing. In circumstances where an individual's mental health issues have acted as a precursor to their homelessness, homelessness often only further amplifies their condition. Increased exposure to harmful drugs, poor nutrition, and difficulty accessing appropriate medical care because of homelessness are all factors that directly impact mental health. It doesn’t come as a surprise when the above infographic shows that all of the mental health illnesses represented have greater representation among the homeless than among the general population.
The discrepancy between the mental health of the general population compared to the homeless population is most pronounced when considering the incidence of depression. The survey conducted by Homeless Link revealed that homeless individuals are thirteen times more likely to suffer from depression. Although the UK was the site of this survey, these sorts of discrepancies extend beyond geographic borders. In a survey conducted by St. Michael's Hospital, 31% of the homeless population was shown to suffer from depression. This is opposed to 4.8% of the general population who suffer from depression according to figures provided by the Canadian government.
In the absence of care and support, many homeless individuals suffering with mental health issues turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 41% of those surveyed by Homeless Link reported such behaviour. This leads to increasing instability in their lives and may ultimately lead to concurrent disorders, a condition representing 12% of the homeless population surveyed. The term concurrent disorder refers to being diagnosed with both mental illness and a substance abuse problem. Over the course of treatment, it’s difficult for specialists to determine if mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or both are causing symptoms and behavioural problems. There is an evident need for specialized, coordinated programs and services that address this specific subgroup.
Perhaps, rather than viewing this issue from a numbers-oriented perspective, it would help us to focus on individual stories.
Martin was professionally educated and employed before his mental health issues resulted in him becoming homeless. Martin was fortunate to find the help he needed at the Mustard Seed shelter in Calgary. Like in Martin’s experience, to meet the needs of people experiencing mental health problems, a number of services are required.
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