Youth Reconnect and The Upstream Project Canada are youth homelessness early intervention prevention initiatives that are based on partnerships between schools and community social service organizations. This blog post discusses the case for the innovative collaboration models undertaken by these initiatives, with the critical role of schools at the forefront. We hope it contributes to the important conversations on better solutions to supporting young people with unstable home lives. For a more in-depth discussion, we are offering a webinar on August 11 at 2pm (EDT). Sign up here.
“A house isn’t necessarily a home” - Youth with Lived Experience
While “home” in an ideal sense can mean many different things to many different people, the basic - and often taken for granted - conditions are safety and stability. For too many youth, however, these basic conditions needed to thrive are far from reality. They might be dealing with family conflict, poverty, health struggles, trauma and other struggles that are unique to individuals and their families. When there are external stressors such as economic, political and public health crises, these issues can escalate. Disturbingly, throughout the current pandemic, there have been mounting reports worldwide of increasing violence at home; and at the same time, child welfare referrals are declining as children and youth are isolated at home and out of schools and community programs. Before the #StayHome sanctions were in place, some youth were able to find relief from their fragile family relationships through attending school. Offering some reprieve and stability during the day, schools offered young people the chance to be temporarily pre-occupied from their struggles at home. Beyond academics, for many youth, school provides the system of support they may not have at home, through peers, caring teachers and/or school staff and through engagement in extracurricular activities.
“[School] is the perfect place to capture the risks for anything. Because [students] are there. And if they’re not, you have to find out why they’re not there” (Youth with lived experience).
We know that when marginalized and at-risk children and youth lack protection and supports, they are much more likely than their peers to become justice-involved, misuse substances and experience homelessness. This concern has become magnified during the pandemic, illuminating the need to support young people before this happens. As schools and communities prepare to contend with the impacts of this pandemic, we must not waste the early lessons related to the conditions and issues of young people with unstable home lives and their families.
It is well-established by research (e.g., OECD, 2018) that when young people have unstable home lives and housing situations, educational equity is an issue because they are immensely disadvantaged in comparison to their peers. These factors, and numerous others, including structural, systemic and individual/relational issues, can lead to an extreme form of marginalization: homelessness.
What would it take to stop this from happening to young people? As educational and life outcomes are closely tied to risk of and experience of homelessness, it is clear that the education sector, and in particular, schools, are vital informants and partners in addressing this challenge.
But isn’t the social services sector already addressing youth homelessness? Why get schools involved?
The Education Sector as Partners in Prevention
Rather than getting into a philosophical debate about the purposes of schooling (or, “success” for that matter!), we write with the understanding that the education system plays a critical role in setting up young people for successful life trajectories. Aligned to this understanding, equity is at the forefront of the education agenda across Canada, with numerous initiatives in place to support students who face various challenges and disadvantages. One area that has been widely overlooked, however, is youth without a stable home. We know that a far too many youth who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness are victims of bullying; have high dropout rates (53% compared with the national average or 9%); have higher rates of learning and physical disabilities; and are characterized by childhood trauma and extremely unstable home lives. Of course, this means they lack vital support for positive school experiences and successful educational outcomes, leading to barriers in finding stable employment and into a cycle of instability as adults (e.g., Baker-Collins, 2018; Barker et al., 2015). In short, school disengagement – whether it happens prior to or as a result of becoming homeless – has a detrimental impact on health, well-being and employment prospects.
Research shows how the consequences of homelessness can manifest in multiple, interconnected ways. People who leave school early have shorter life expectancies (e.g., Bor et al., 2018) and youth without a home tend to suffer from malnourishment, extreme stress and inadequate healthcare (e.g., untreated infections and inadequate or lack of medications). They are characterized by social and emotional issues, and social exclusion, which is largely caused or exacerbated by these young people having to relocate between unstable – and often unsafe – living situations. As would be expected, this leads to educational interruptions and a loss of important relationships that would have been integral to supporting success in school. Given all of these challenges, it should not be surprising that so many homeless youth (50.5%) are not in employment, education or training – in stark contrast to their peers at 12-14% (Gaetz, 2016).
Somehow, the struggles of these youths often go unnoticed, and/or unaddressed. It may be that they are misunderstood by those around them – including educators. Teachers may not know when youth are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, because they do now show obvious, external signs, for numerous reasons. For example, they might be intentionally hiding their challenges and excelling at school. They might be worried about child welfare involvement; other possible repercussions to themselves and/or their families; and stigma. They might not know what supports are available and how to access them. Or, these stressors might cause them to act out and teachers might (very understandably) only see the behaviour as the problem. Interestingly, these students might not even realize they are considered at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. Invisible homelessness (e.g., couch surfing) does not fit with what many people visualize when they think of homelessness - addicts living on the streets. Even when teachers are aware there is a problem - usually when problems reach a crisis point - they are typically unaware of how to help and are also overburdened by the roles and responsibilities within their scopes of practice.
Given the complex nature of the problem and an overburdened school system, why should youth homelessness be addressed through schools? What can the education sector realistically do – given what is already demanded of them – to support these young people?
Maybe the question to ask instead is: How can the community and other sectors support educators in addressing this issue?
This question is especially critical given what we have been seeing throughout the pandemic and what we must unfortunately prepare to contend with going forward.
Baker Collins, S., Fudge Schormans, A., Watt, L., Idems, B., Wilson, T. (2018). The invisibility of disability for homeless youth. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness. Vol.27(2), 99–109.
Barker, B. Kerr, T., Nguyen, P., Wood, E., DeBeck, K. (2015). Barriers to health and social services for street-involved youth in a Canadian setting. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2015b;36(3):350–63.
Bor, J., Cohen, G.H., Galeah, S. (2017). Population health in an era of rising income inequality: USA, 1980–2015. The Lancet, vol. 389(10077), 1475-1490.
Gaetz, S., Dej, E., Richter, T. & Redman, M. (2016): The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
Liljedahl, S., Rae, J., Aubry, T., & Klodawsky, F. (2013). Resilient Outcome: Academic Engagement by Youth with Histories of Homelessness. In Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Buccieri, K., Karabanow, J., & Marsolais, A. Eds. Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
Moore, Jan. (2013).Teaching and Classroom Strategies for Homeless and Highly Mobile Students. National Centre for Homelessness Education. Retrieved from: https://nche.ed.gov/pr/res-teach-class.php.
OECD (2018), Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264073234-en
Schwan, K., Gaetz, S., French, D., Redman, M., Thistle, J., & Dej, E. (2018). What Would it Take? Youth Across Canada Speak Out on Youth Homelessness Prevention. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.