On September 8th, UNESCO is marking the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, and honouring five decades of international efforts and progress made to increase literacy rates worldwide. UNESCO will also discuss challenges and innovative solutions to further boost literacy in the years to come. 

Literacy rates in Canada are among the highest in the world, completing high school is now considered a norm and increasingly so is post-secondary education.  However, for many homeless youth, staying in school is a difficult challenge. Studies find that 63% to 90% of homeless youth did not complete high school, despite being the age to do so.

Education is an important aspect to our understanding of homelessness. First, individuals with lower educational attainment are at higher risk of unemployment, underemployment and poverty. A Toronto shelter study found that 64% of shelter users did not complete high school versus 34% for all Canadians and, when compared to information on employment, found that those who did not drop out were more likely to be employed. Second, for many homeless youth and children, homelessness can disrupt their efforts to stay in school and often leads to dropping out despite their desires to remain in school. Third, while this is changing, providing educational supports for people experiencing homelessness often takes a back seat to more immediate needs such as shelter and food. 

Barriers & Challenges

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One of the consequences of youth homelessness is being forced to withdraw from school. In some cases, the contributing factors that led to a young person’s homelessness also had an impact on their school success. In other words, they were already at risk of dropping out. In other cases, school may not have been affected. However, when homelessness results in an individual having to leave their community, dropping out of school becomes an even more likely result, regardless of school performance to that point.

Once on the streets, returning or continuing school becomes a real challenge. Without access to affordable housing, adequate income, proper nutrition, and trusting supportive adults, school is often not a realistic possibility for street youth. In Canada, our approach to youth homelessness and the infrastructure we have in place to respond to it typically does not support young people who wish to return to, or stay in school. By denying homeless youth with adequate opportunities to obtain an education, advocates argue that we are condemning such young people to a life of poverty

For homeless families, ensuring that children stay in school is often a struggle. Homeless families are often forced to move to family shelters that are a great distance from their communities. Children have no other option but to enrol in a new a school, and because of the poverty facing such families, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining a good education. While most Canadians would agree that all children and youth should have access to a good education, the experience of homelessness and poverty makes this difficult, if not impossible.

Some of the barriers to education include:

  • Housing instability
  • Displacement
  • Negative familial relationships including lack of parental support
  • Domestic violence
  • Health conditions and learning disabilities
  • School enrolment policies
  • Lack of transportation
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Lack of inter-agency collaboration
  • Discrimination
  • Download of school responsibility solely on children and youth

What is being done?

While these challenges may seem overwhelming, many community agencies are supporting youth and adults with their educational needs:

  1. Homeward Bound in Toronto provides a holistic 4-year job-readiness program featuring: affordable housing, free quality child care, training and post-secondary education in a marketable skill, personal development support, and mental health services. 
  2. Also in Toronto, Youth Without Shelter’s Stay in School Program supports homeless youth with completing their education by providing a safe and stable environment to live in, and support services from staff members.
  3. ACCESS BladeRunners in Vancouver offers homeless and at-risk youth a comprehensive training and support program including education, job training, and access to support structures.
  4. RainCity Housing and Support Society in Vancouver provides Housing First for LGBTQ2S youth with an emphasis on community support, employment, education and healthcare.  
  5. Dans la rue high school in Montreal enrols up to 20 students in their program, and provides a psychosocial counselor and resources to maximize their chances of success.

These are just a handful of programs supporting homeless youth across Canada but more services and programming are needed to meet the diverse and unique needs, circumstances and goals of each youth.

Canada has made great strides forward in making education a priority, however, this progress needs to continue by addressing the barriers to education of the most marginalized groups, including people experiencing homelessness and those at-risk, and providing them with the necessary supports. If we want homeless youth and children to have a chance to succeed, we need to act now.

To take part in the conversation around UNESCO’s International Literacy Day, use the hashtags #LiteracyDay and #50ILD

Photo CreditUNESCO’s International Literacy Day