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What you might not know about youth homelessness

Right now as many as 7,000 young Canadians don’t know where they’ll be sleeping tonight. It’s a daily reality for the estimated 40,000 youth experiencing homelessness in this country, but one the public often misunderstands. Popular images of aggressive addicts fuel fears—it’s hard to see past the circumstance to the person.

Even the way youth homelessness is talked about can affect perception. Saying “youth experiencing homelessness” instead of “homeless youth” is more than political correctness. It changes how a person is framed. If someone is homeless, then that’s what they are. But if someone is experiencing homelessness, then it’s just one thing that’s happening to them for the moment.

“We often say homelessness is the least interesting thing about the youth that we work with,” says Alison Brodie of Covenant House Vancouver.  “So many of them have gone on to do incredible, impressive things. A lot of us can relate to just being in a challenging spot in our lives.”

Most don’t choose homelessness, and many who do have their reasons

Corinne Nelson of Woods Homes in Calgary often finds herself correcting the idea that youth run away from home or choose homelessness as a way of acting out. “Some perceive youth homelessness to be opposition or defiance, without thinking about what reasons someone might have to run from their home situation,” she says. “Consider the trauma, or what may have been happening in the home that would cause someone to have so strong a desire to leave and live such a challenging lifestyle.”

“Their circumstances are not in any way their fault,” says Alison. “Their circumstances are the result of something that’s been done to them by their caregivers or other people they were supposed to be able to trust. All of the youth we work with have experienced trauma.”

Youth experiencing homelessness are often not on the streets

Alison pushes back on the usual image of homelessness when it comes to youth. “Most people aren’t aware that a huge proportion of the youth homeless population aren’t necessarily on the street,” she says. “[In Vancouver] as in many other cities in Canada, homelessness is such a visible issue—the average person here encounters someone experiencing homelessness daily.”

“Lots of folks are staying with friends, they’re couch surfing, staying with other family members. They are homeless—they don’t have a safe and consistent place to stay—but they’re not the people you see on the street. They could be working at Starbucks or the grocery store.”

Escaping homelessness isn’t as simple as just getting a job

“Homelessness is a very complicated issue,” emphasizes Alison. “There’s no one cause, no single contributor to why people are remaining homeless. The idea that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get a job and work hard, that everything will fall into place is just false,” she continues.

“So many of the youth we see [at Covenant House] are working. They’re making minimum wage and they’re working so hard, they’re just not making enough money to make rent. Thinking you can just work hard and lift yourself out of homelessness overlooks all the structural and systemic factors.”

Corinne points out the impossible situation many youth experiencing homelessness can find themselves in. “We have some financial resources that they can gain access to, but they can’t gain access to them without a fixed address, but they can’t get a fixed address without having access to the resource.”

Even when youth can access resources, they still face barriers. “Sometimes people are expected to exit addiction before they’re housed,” says Corinne. “Their mental health concerns, if they’re not managed, can impact their ability to gain and sustain housing or employment.”

The relationship between addiction and homelessness isn’t what most people think

Corinne often hears false ideas of the role substance use and abuse play in the lives of youth experiencing homelessness: “That they just want a party, that all homeless individuals have some kind of addiction problem. Those stigmas are very common.”

But the popular idea that people become homeless because of addiction is often the exact reverse of the truth, explains Alison. “People aren’t necessarily aware that drug use or substance use is fundamentally a coping mechanism for folks who have experienced trauma, who are going through living somewhere unsafe night after night.”

“The effects of trauma on a young brain can cause significant gaps in social and emotional development,” says Corinne. “That’s not someone’s choice, that’s not necessarily the effects of drugs. That’s the impact of early childhood trauma.”

Alison also sees the impact of trauma on the youth she works with. “Trauma has physical effects. It affects a person’s body, their ability to continue to be resilient every day. Every youth we see knows someone who’s been affected by the opioid epidemic, if they haven’t been affected themselves.”

“[At Woods Homes,] we say that connection is the opposite of addiction,” Corinne explains. “Addiction allows us to escape our reality. When our reality is based on our ability to connect with other individuals, to be seen and accepted as who we are in a safe environment, we’re less drawn to obsess over seeking the next hit.”

It takes more than donations to help youth experiencing homelessness

Corinne emphasizes the need for connection and community as an aid for youth. “Everyone will ask, “How can I help?” and when they ask that, they mean what tangible thing do we need: mittens, hats? What we need is connection. If you know how to knit, come in and you can teach these humans how to knit. Or you know how to do some carpentry, or cut hair, or do makeup. You can help by offering your time and your knowledge.”

“Providing youth with housing is important, but it’s just the first step,” Alison says. “Particularly for youth, there are a lot of other supports they need. People assume there must be supports available, there must be programs to fill the gaps between services and there aren’t. As well, the services that are available haven’t kept pace with the cost of living. Sometimes people just fall through the cracks. It’s important to remember none of this is their fault. If they’d had the same opportunities many of us have had, their circumstances would be very different.”

Corinne emphasizes the importance of never forgetting that humanity is always the most important thing about someone. “Whenever I see a new client come in here looking gruff and angry and dirty, I think, “when was the last time someone smiled at you?” You’re human first. I’m not going to see your dirt or your sad eyes. I’m not going to see you for your addiction, I’m going to see you for you and say hi to you. I’m going to really see you.”

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