Earlier this month the Federal Government released Everyone Counts 2018. The report provides the preliminary results from the second nationally coordinated Point-in-Time (PiT) count of homelessness in Canadian communities. Between March 1 and April 30, 2018, 61 communities participated in Everyone Counts. The first count took place in 2016 with 32 participating communities. The growth in communities participating in the coordinated PiT count process reflects not only a commitment to understanding trends and realities in communities but a commitment towards contributing to the national homelessness picture.

The results represent a snapshot of homelessness from a range of communities across Canada, including data from communities in every province and territory, covering major urban centres, suburban communities of various sizes, and more rural and remote communities. Unfortunately, the report tells an all too familiar story when it comes to youth who have or are experiencing homelessness.

Youth between the ages of 13 and 24 still represent a large percentage (13% of all individuals enumerated) of the homeless population.

Figure 3. Age and gender identity

Graph courtesy of Employment and Social Development Canada. 

Youth who identify as LGBTQ2 are overrepresented (21% of the youth enumerated) in the homelessness population.

Figure 5. LGBTQ2 responses were most common among youth

Graph courtesy of Employment and Social Development Canada. 

Lastly, and perhaps the most tragic number in the entire report which illustrates the importance of prevention-based approaches to homelessness writ large. Age of “first” homelessness experience (50% of those enumerated first experienced homelessness before they turned 25) remains unreasonably low.

Figure 6. Age of first homelessness experience

Graph courtesy of Employment and Social Development Canada. 

This data is important, suggesting that while 13% of currently homeless individuals are youth, the impact of exposure to homelessness at a young age can be long lasting, and potentially contribute to an ongoing experience of homelessness throughout life.

Moreover, it should be noted that in the Without a Home study - the largest survey on youth homelessness ever conducted in Canada - over 40% of respondents reported their first experience of homelessness occurred before the age of 16. Few, if any, communities have any comprehensive strategies to support these young people in crisis.

These results are compelling, but not in a positive way.

By not prioritizing addressing youth homelessness - particularly through prevention - are we creating a pipeline to later chronicity? In other words, if we were to successfully address youth homelessness, would we in fact be preventing chronic homelessness in later life?

We need to ask ourselves: what will it take to start seeing reductions in the numbers specific to youth homelessness?

Does Canada need a strategic direction?

The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness, which we released in November 2018, offers up a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to addressing youth homelessness. Designed for service providers, policy makers, communities, advocates, researchers, and all people in Canada, the Roadmap is the most comprehensive collection of action-oriented examples compiled to date. The Roadmap is a useful guide to why and how prevention can contribute to a comprehensive systems response to youth homelessness, detailing evidence-based and informed program models that can help communities and governments implement plans to prevent and end youth homelessness. The Roadmap was directly informed by consultations with people across Canada who have experienced youth homelessness. In order to reform our response to youth homelessness, it is critical that those who have experienced youth homelessness’ insights are the cornerstone of the work.

Do we need more governments prepared to challenge the status quo?

Over the last 10 years, we have seen a growth in data, evidence and examples specific to youth homelessness. All of these in combination (should) contribute to increased confidence across elected officials and those in the bureaucracy. Shifting the status quo means a shift to prevention and that shift will require systems change, and systems change is difficult work. Across Canada, people with lived experience of youth homelessness emphasized that systems change is where youth homelessness prevention efforts could be most effective. These people were very clear – we are waiting too long to intervene when a young person is at risk or experiencing homelessness. People with lived experience of youth homelessness called for a sweeping shift to rights-based prevention and early intervention. This requires communities and governments to adopt innovative models for programs and practice, as well as make significant policy and systems change.

Do organizations need to embrace prevention-based approaches to youth homlessness?

Because our knowledge base regarding youth homelessness prevention is much more well established and growing, and there is momentum in this area in Canada, the prevention conversation continues to flourish. The understanding and solutions to the complexities in addressing youth homelessness is allowing us to draw on these examples for real on the ground results. Important stories of keeping families intact, youth overcoming trauma, housing stabilization, labour market attachment and even training and post-secondary education are being told across the country and we are listening intently. We’re doing our part to make this happen through our Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation and Demonstration Labs. It is now becoming clear that if we want to tackle chronic homelessness amongst adults, there is a compelling case for focusing on youth homelessness.

In reality, it will take an integrated approach to realizing the Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness, thus building confidence with governments across Canada so they can shift the status quo. It will also take continued adaptations from communities and organizations to move to prevention to shift the trajectory of these stark numbers.

The Federal government should be commended for ensuring this data is accessible. Much like the results of the first Without a Home: National Youth Homelessness Survey, we are committed to sharing the results of the second Without a Home: National Youth Homelessness Survey in the coming year. This data will build upon the Everyone Counts data, facilitate broader discussions across governments, and equip communities and organizations with compelling advocacy tools. Alignment across these data tools is a top priority for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada.

With collective action, strong political will and a fearlessness to ensure youth reach their full potential, we can start to see these numbers drop!