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Governments must act now to end youth homelessness

Local News: About 40,000 young people go without a home to call their own over the course of a year in Canada. And the problem is only getting worse.

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Groups promoting solutions to youth homelessness across Canada are calling on governments to act now because the problem is only getting worse.

In an effort to help get governments going with a plan, non-profit advocacy groups such as the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada have prepared direct actions that can be taken based on evidence the groups have collected over the years. The policy brief, Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: A Proposal For Action, looks at four key areas: housing instability in care, difficult transitions from child welfare services, youth with early experiences of homelessness, and inequity.

“We believe that the time is now for the Government of Canada to make Canada’s most vulnerable youth a national priority; the process they are currently engaged in with the renewal of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy provides a rare opportunity to do just that,” says Melanie Redman, executive director of A Way Home Canada, in a media release.

Off the streets
About 40,000 young people go without a home to call their own over the course of a year in Canada. Youth aged 13–24 make up about 20 per cent of the homeless population across the country.

According to the latest Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, those under 25 represented 13 per cent of people experiencing homelessness. “In some communities, youth are more prevalent: Aggasiz-Harrison (60 per cent); Delta (53 per cent); Chilliwack (29 per cent); Langley (26 per cent); Tri-Cities (24 per cent),” the report states.

The group made its recommendations based on a survey last year that showed 31.5 per cent of youth experiencing homelessness report their first contact with the welfare system at the age of six. And 53 per cent reported continued involvement beyond the age of 16.

These failures result from poor coordination across systems that increase the likelihood that someone will experience homelessness, according to the two advocacy groups.

"Youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness in terms of its causes and conditions,” says Dr. Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, in a release. “The needs of developing adolescents and young adults, in terms of policy, services and supports, are unique and distinct.”

Policy solutions
Having public systems—such as child welfare, education, mental health, income supports and criminal justice—work together is essential, according to the policy report. Community planning and systems coordination helps at the ground level, as the front lines can deal with their particular demographics who really need help.

Basically, making the shift out of an emergency response and into prevention prioritizing youth must happen. While Alberta is the first provincial government to release a homeless youth strategy, Ontario has made it one of its four key priorities, and Newfoundland, Labrador, and Manitoba are showing interest in moving in this direction.

Meanwhile in B.C., the government has signaled it’s developing a poverty reduction plan, but with no specifics.

The group also suggest program interventions—enabling communities to shift their approach to prevention and helping young people exit homelessness.

This includes supporting the housing first model, but targeted at youth too.

It involves a right to housing with no preconditions, youth choice and self-determination, wellness orientation, client-driven supports with no time limits, and community integration.

“As in any housing first context, choice is primary, which means there must be options,” the report states.

This model includes family reconnection, independent living at scattered sites (instead of one building/facility), transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing just for adolescents and young adults.

Once youth are given a stable place to live, they can move on to complementary supports, access income and education, work on their well-being, and engage in the community, ideally.

This can be done through a Canadian Housing Benefit, which would be a joint federal, provincial portable housing benefit program for those in the most urgent housing need.

Prevention measures
While this is a lot to put on provincial governments and the federal government to coordinate, the group suggests a youth homelessness committee.

Its aim would be to align mandates across all provinces, collaborate and support initiatives, and strengthen the ability of existing systems to intervene in a rapid, coordinated manner, according to the report.

“An investment that prioritizes prevention and ensuring young people exit homelessness will also reduce the likelihood of homeless youth experiencing chronic homelessness as adults,” the report states.

But there are critical information gaps that make it almost impossible to effectively address youth homelessness.

That’s why a focus on data collection and research would help scale evidence-based and supported interventions. Also, agencies collect data differently—making it difficult to compare across communities.

The federal government could alleviate this by setting clear directions and expectations on data collection in partnership with communities and organizations providing the information.

Simplifying data collection will provide a more accurate picture of what’s happening on the streets.

“The Government of Canada must act now," says Gaetz.

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