The Invisible Homeless – Youth without a Roof over their Head

By Célie Dugand and Colin McGregor    

Do you believe the statistics that say that 20% of Canada’s homeless are between the ages of 13 and 25, even if you don’t see so many on the streets every day?

That’s the percentage reported by Without a Home, the study by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. They maintain that in terms of youth homelessness, we’ve waited far too long to intervene.

We just don’t see them enough every day. The typical homeless we see on the streets are adults living on the edge, sleeping on a park bench, wrapped in newspapers on cold days, or asleep at a Metro station. Where are all these young people?

Cécile Arbaud is the Executive Director of Dans la rue since 2013. They’re an organization that has helped young aimless persons in the Centre-South of Montreal for over 30 years.

“Yes, absolutely, I believe that 20% statistic,” she says. “When we talk of homeless we never mention the hidden homeless. A lot of youths don’t identify as homeless even though they are. Especially young women live in insecure conditions. They don’t show up at the services that could help them, and some don’t even know that there are places where they can go.”

They are often invisible because “there is transitional housing, they live with several roommates in an apartment, they go to the organizations, they go to school, and they don’t spend their days out on the street,” Arbaud explains.

The numbers are shocking: in terms of homeless youth (13 to 24), over the course of a year between 35,000 and 40,000 will at some point be without a roof over their heads; and on any given night between 6,000 and 7,000 won’t have a place to sleep. Among them:  

– 29.5 % are young LGBTQ2S;

– 30.6 % are young indigenous;

– 28.2 % are of a visible minority.

“Young people certainly don’t self-identify as homeless,” says Arbaud. “They experience life differently. They’re living through physical, cognitive and emotional transitions. They’re excluded from their families because they have things that have made them excluded. So they don’t socially identify with a family – they’re searching for their own identity.”

It’s an exaggeration to say that they are all exploited at this vulnerable phase in their lives but many are, Arbaud says. Organized crime recruits young women and girls to become prostitutes, and young men and boys to sell drugs.

Dans la rue is exclusively for young people. They have a school program and an employability program. There are about a hundred organizations across Canada that solely help youth on the margins, says Arbaud.

But in many jurisdictions, it isn’t enough. That’s because services for homeless or wayward youth aren’t available until the youth has turned 16, or even 18. The evidence suggests that a lot of damage has been done by then.

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a lot of minors experience homelessness long before they are eligible for help and assistance.

One stunning thing is that 40.1% of the itinerants that the Observatory talked to in their study reported being under 16 years of age when they first experienced homelessness. Another study headed up by Martin Goyette, a professor at the École nationale d’administration publique (ENAP concluded that 33% of youths leaving a placement with youth protection end up being homeless at least once before the age of 21.

“They’ve experienced a lot of trauma – anxiety, depression,” observes Arbaud. “They have a lot of things to work on, they have to develop living skills. If our living conditions are unstable, it’s very difficult to regain control over your life, to go to school, find a job, and control your mental health issues.”

Kids who leave home at an early age don’t just go through periods of homelessness. They also face greater adversity once they’re out on the street.

“Across the country, there’s not much for those under 16,” Arbaud concludes. “Our organization attempts to provide emergency housing for them, but that’s exceptional, because for that you need special permission. There’s a protocol with the youth protection authorities (DPJ) and the police, because these kids are so often in their system. If they’re between 16 and 18, we can house them in our day centre.”

With all the evidence about how vital the early teenage years are for the rest of our lives, shouldn’t we find a way to help those under 16 before it’s too late for them?

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