The criminalization of housing insecurity, and the links between criminal justice involvement and homelessness, has become particularly evident during the pandemic. There has been a heightened law enforcement response to homelessness and homeless encampments around the world and within Canada, both in practice and policy responses. In this context, scholars and activists have called for an end to Canadian legislation and policy that effectively punishes people for their housing status, and University of Toronto researcher Joseph Hermer and colleagues have launched a rapid national research project aimed at mapping neo-vagrancy laws and the criminalization of poverty in the time of COVID-19. 

While we are still learning about how the pandemic is influencing the criminalization of homelessness, is worth reflecting on what we already know about youth homelessness and interactions with the criminal justice system. It appears there are three main threads in research on youth homelessness and criminal justice involvement:

  1. Research that focuses on the criminal activities of young people, exploring how these activities contribute to (or are the result of) socio-economic marginalization and housing precarity. 
  2. Research that focuses on the criminalization of young people who are homeless or housing insecure (e.g., through the ticketing of young people trying to survive through panhandling). 
  3. Research that focuses on criminal justice system failures, and the ways in which these failures result in, or deepen, young people’s housing precarity and exclusion. 

While some research continues to focus on the “pathology” or “deviant peer groups” of youth who are homeless and involved with the criminal justice system, various studies have shown that when this group engages in activities that are criminalized (e.g., drug dealing), it is not due to a lack of “moral judgement” but as a means to meet basic needs. Further, research shows that young people who are unhoused are more likely to be victims of crime. The National Youth Homelessness Survey found that 59.6% of youth who are homeless experience violent victimization, including high rates of sexual assault, compared to 7.6% of the general public. This violence on the streets is often preceded by violence or neglect within the home, with many youth being kicked out or forced to leave home due to instances of abuse, destructive family relationships, or alienation due to gender-diverse or sexual identity disclosure. 

Youth themselves report numerous failures in the criminal justice system that contribute to their homelessness, and in turn their own criminalization once unhoused.

For example, in a 2018 national consultation with youth experiencing homelessness across Canada, some young people reported abandonment by law enforcement when they sought help for experiences of violence, abuse, or victimization. Several disclosed that they stopped calling 911 when they experienced abuse from their parents or caregivers because they felt blamed, shamed, or ignored by officers. Once homeless, these same youth reported frequent harassment or profiling by police officers. How do we break this cycle?

Research suggests that the criminalization of homelessness of youth is partially rooted in centuries-long characterizations of people who are unsheltered as lazy or morally inferior (the “deprivation” narrative), responsible for their own misfortune (the “choice” narrative), and as potential criminals that require punishment to reform (the “criminality” narrative) (as articulated by Sylvestre & Bellot, 2014). 

It is critical that we reflect on how these narratives are shaping criminal justice policy responses to youth who are homeless during the pandemic. COVID-19 provides the opportunity to adopt a preventive approach to youth homelessness that tackles many of the system failures that lay the foundation for youth to become or remain unhoused. As the criminal justice system adapts to the pandemic, there is the opportunity to simultaneously adopt new practices we know can prevent youth from becoming homeless and support youth to transition out of the criminal justice system and into stable, secure housing. 

The question is: will we take this opportunity?