What happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Surprisingly, while there have been many studies on what drives young people to the streets and what keeps them there, there have been very few studies designed to follow young people in their journey off the streets.
In March 2015, I began 10 months of intense field work, hanging out with nine young people who had recently left the shelter system in Toronto, Canada and moved into market rent housing. My goal was relatively simple: I wanted formerly homeless young people to help me understand what kinds of things they needed in order to achieve meaningful social integration. In other words, if our society is a big circle and the young people were standing on the edge, how can we help them move inside the circle and feel like they belong?
All of the young people who participated in the study were living in Toronto and paying market rent prices. Most lived alone in rooming houses or basement suites. The majority were unemployed and receiving welfare supplements. Six of the young people had completed high school, which is significant given only about 35% of young people experiencing homelessness in Canada have completed high school (Gaetz, O’Grady, Kidd, & Schwan, 2016).
Most of the young people were enrolled in the study for six to nine months. During that time, we would meet one-on-one, every other week, wherever it was convenient for them to meet. We would meet at their new homes or close by most of the time, but sometimes they would take me to other places like their schools, places of employment, where they grew up, or places they liked to hang out. I purposely did not use a car during the study because I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to navigate a city of 2.8 million people on foot or public transit in all different kinds of weather. By the end of the study, I had met with most participants 13 to 19 times.
As I conducted my fieldwork, I saw first-hand how social structures can be oppressive, positioning people in ways that make it remarkably challenging to move forward, despite the outside appearance of housing stability.
Three major findings emerged from the study:
1. Chronic precarity
- All of the young people lived below the poverty line for the entire study with most existing on welfare supplements of less than $8,000/year. After paying rent and purchasing a transit pass, most were left with just $36.00/month.
- Even though most of the youth had graduated from high school, the only jobs that were available to them were part-time, minimum wage, seemingly dead-end jobs. And when they did start working, welfare would claw back their meager incomes.
- Mainstream connections to people who could help participants get ahead vs. get by were either non-existent or extremely limited.
2. Identity evolution
- The young people were eager to distance themselves from identities of homelessness and wanted to be seen as responsible, competent emerging adults. Unfortunately, many of the supports available to them were located in homeless shelters, reminding them of their old identities as homeless youth.
- Participants’ identities were fragile because they were mostly linked to tangible things that could easily be taken away (like their homes). Participants had limited intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy.
3. Mastery and control undermined
- The young people used up most of their energy on day-to-day survival instead of long-term planning. Limited intangible identity-based assets meant the young people became easily discouraged and exhausted.
- Being unable to participate financially in our consumer-oriented culture made the young people feel even more inadequate.
- Ironically, the move away from the shelter and into mainstream society highlighted to participants that life was going to be much more challenging for them than for other young people the same age.
The Hamster Wheel of Poverty
I sketched this picture one day, when I was having trouble representing my findings through words. The person in the picture is housed, but is trapped in a “hamster wheel” of poverty, not moving forward despite spinning. The coloured sections inside the wheel are meant to depict the game spinner from the popular Game of Life board game representing that, for the study participants, successful outcomes in the mainstream seemed more up to chance rather than something they could control.
The young people who participated in this research showed me how challenging it can be for formerly homeless youth to move beyond day-to-day survival even after they obtain housing. Given most young people leaving homelessness will eventually end up in market rent accommodations, we need to pay attention to the findings from this study. If we truly want to prevent homelessness from reoccurring, we must provide youth leaving homelessness with all the resources and opportunities they need to integrate into the mainstream. These include:
- Subsidized housing
- Moving transition-related supports to less stigmatizing locations
- More opportunities to earn a living wage
- Free post-secondary education with no welfare claw backs
- Subsidized or free transit passes
- Outreach staff training on enhancing intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy
- A concerted effort to connect formerly homeless young people with those in much better socioeconomic circumstances
So what happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Well, according to the results from this study, most live a precarious existence, not really feeling like they belong, and one small misstep away from ending up homeless again. We must move beyond defining success for young people experiencing homelessness as the attainment of market rent housing and a minimum wage job or welfare supplements. These amazing young people deserve the same things we want for our own children – a life filled with purpose and meaning, and a chance to belong.
A Critical Examination of Homeless Youth Transitions to Independent Housing: Youth Perspectives on Homelessness Prevention is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca.
Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Kidd, S., & Schwan, K. (2016). Without a home: The national youth homelessness survey. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.