A Primer on Youth Homelessness

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:

“Youth homelessness” refers to the situation and experience of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers, but do not have the means or ability to acquire a stable, safe or consistent residence.

Youth homelessness is a complex social issue because as a society we have failed to provide young people and their families with the necessary and adequate supports that will enable them to move forward with their lives in a safe and planned way. In addition to experiencing economic deprivation and a lack of secure housing, many young people who are homelessness lack the personal experience of living independently and at the same time may be in the throes of significant developmental (social, physical, emotional and cognitive) changes.  As a result, they may not have the resources, resilience, education, social supports or life skills necessary to foster a safe and nurturing transition to adulthood and independence. Few young people choose to be homeless, nor wish to be defined by their homelessness, and the experience is generally negative and stressful.

Youth homelessness is the denial of basic human rights and once identified as such, it must be remedied.  All young people have the right to the essentials of life, including adequate housing, food, safety, education and justice.

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:

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.

Why youth homelessness is different:

From Plan to End Youth Homelessness in Calgary (2011):

  • Youth are in the process of developing physically, socially, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually,
  • Youth homelessness stems in large part from problems or conflict in families and homes,
  • Youth under the age of majority have distinct legal entitlements and restrictions,
  • Many youth entering homelessness are leaving lives that were previously governed by adult caregivers,
  • Youth are served by a distinct infrastructure involving separate systems of justice, education, health and child protection/welfare,
  • Many youth enter homelessness with little or no work experience,
  • Many youth are forced to abandon their education because of homelessness and
  • Homeless youth – and many youth in general – experience high levels of criminal victimization.

From Alberta Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness (2015):

  • Youth are in the process of transitioning toward adulthood and may not have acquired personal, social and life skills that make independent living possible,
  • Youth tend to seek, access and respond to services and supports differently than other homeless individuals,
  • They often avoid the homeless-serving system out of fear of authorities,
  • Youth have particularly challenging issues and require targeted responses to be rehoused,
  • For youth under the age of 18, the situation is complicated by the obligation of families and/or the government to care for them and provide for their basic needs and
  • For youth involved with the Child Intervention System, these issues are further magnified if healthy transitions are not prioritized.

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.