This toolkit is not intended to replace resources that already exist; rather, it is designed to provide an overview of the essentials involved in developing a plan to end youth homelessness. As a starting point, we will outline some basics on youth homelessness, along with approaches to address it. This will set the context for further guidance on developing a youth plan.
What is youth homelessness?
Considerable work has been done on defining youth homelessness consistently at a national level. The national definition of youth homelessness advanced by the COH is as follows:
We strongly urge communities to consider adopting the national definition of youth homelessness to ensure consistency across Canada.
How many youth experience homelessness?
Though no single definitive source on the prevalence of youth homelessness exists, the State of Homelessness in Canada 2013 report estimates that at least 35,000 young people experience homelessness annually – or 6,000 youth on any given night.
More reliable information on the prevalence and characteristics of homeless youth will emerge thanks to major research efforts underway, including:
- National Point-in-Time Homeless Counts – undertaken in 2016 across Canadian communities using standard methods and
- National Youth Homelessness Survey – results from across Canadian communities expected for release in 2016 outlining detailed analysis of characteristics and needs of youth experiencing homelessness.
Why is youth homelessness distinct?
Research has consistently shown that the causes and impacts of youth homelessness are distinct from adult homelessness, thus the plans and interventions we use must be correspondingly distinct and tailored to youth. Youth experience homelessness in distinct ways; they are often less visible on the street and more likely to ‘couch surf.’ This is particularly common in smaller, rural and remote communities, where homelessness is generally less visible. Youth are often reported to be homeless as a result of abuse in the home, which leads to notable movement and transience as they seek a safe place to live outside of their familial home.
Youth are extremely vulnerable because they are at an early life stage, still developing cognitively, physically, emotionally and socially. For many young people who experience homelessness, these challenges are often complicated by the fact that they are simultaneously dealing with life-altering events such as recent trauma and/or violence. Youth homelessness exists within a broad and complex spectrum of circumstances. Youth experiencing homelessness are precariously housed – couch surfing, staying in youth and adult shelters or sleeping rough and are often discharged into homelessness from public institutions and systems, including child intervention and foster care.
In some communities, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, immigrant and visible minority youth are overrepresented. With respect to Indigenous youth, the interrelated issues of poverty, domestic, violence, trauma and abuse and ongoing discrimination and lack of cultural connections further exacerbate the experience of housing stress.
Youth who identify as LGBTQ2S make up 25–40% of the youth homeless population, compared to only 5–10% of the general population. LGBTQ2S youth experience the additional layer of challenges faced by those with sexual orientations and gender identities that are different from the mainstream. LGBTQ2S youth are over-represented among the population experiencing homelessness as a result of homophobia and transphobia in the home and across the service and housing systems. This in turn impacts the development of responses and interventions.
As the Homeless Hub notes, youth often lack the experience and skills necessary to live independently, particularly those under the age of majority. Youth’s physical, mental, social and emotional development impacts their needs and the type of interventions best suited to house and support them further. One cannot assume the needs of a 13 year old are equivalent to those of a 24 year old, for instance.
The causes of youth homelessness are distinct and primarily underlined by family conflict; many are fleeing abuse or leaving the care of child welfare services. Homelessness for youth goes beyond a loss of stable housing: it is the loss of a home in which they are embedded in relations of dependence. This creates an interruption and potential rupture in social relations with parents and caregivers, family members, friends, neighbours and community. A high percentage of homeless youth were also previously in the care of child protection services, making system responses a priority in any efforts to end youth homelessness.