Seminal report on youth homelessness delivers sound policy recommendations

Homeless man living on the street, horizontal

The Homeless Hub, the research arm of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) at York University, is knowledge mobilization at its best. This organization undertakes trail-blazing research that informs policy and affects meaningful change. Most recently, the Homeless Hub released a report, Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: A Proposal for Action (2017), published by COH Press in partnership with A Way Home Canada, and funded by the Home Depot Canada Foundation’s Orange Door Project.

Homeless youth in tunnel
New report sheds light on youth homelessness.

Using freshly mined data from Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey (2016), researchers led by President and CEO of Homeless Hub/COH and York Faculty of Education Professor Stephen Gaetz shed new light on this pressing issue. Capturing the experiences of 1,103 homeless young people in 42 different communities in nine provinces and Nunavut, the survey offers the first national portrait of Canada’s population of homeless youth. Its breadth allowed the researchers to gain previously unattainable information, expose some unsettling facts and provide sound policy recommendations.

Stephen Gaetz

This report paints a new and vivid picture of youth homelessness that underscores a connection to the child welfare system, with an emphasis on the transition from care. Thirty per cent of surveyed youth see this transition as directly impacting their current situation of homelessness, and 57 per cent of youth who “aged out” of care would have appreciated continued support, if it were available.

“Child protection legislation and practice haven’t kept pace with current social and economic changes that make it much more difficult for people in their teens and twenties to live independently,” says Gaetz.

This is Gaetz’s lifework. In fact, in 2016, he was appointed to the Order of Canada for his leadership in providing evidence-based research to policy makers and practitioners in the movement to prevent and reduce homelessness in Canada.

Few organizations are better set up than the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub to make policy suggestions in this area. A core belief is that research can, and should, contribute to solutions to homelessness. Launched in 2007, the Hub was created to address the need for a single place to find pan-Canadian homelessness information. A decade later, it has become an indispensable resource where service providers, researchers, government representatives, students and members of the public can access and share research, stories and best practices.

Homeless youth are 193 times more likely than members of the public to have been involved with the child welfare system

Report provides new window on vulnerability

In addition to the facts around transition from care, Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada brought to light some troubling realities about the vulnerabilities of homeless youth, such as:

  • Fifty-seven per cent of homelessness youth was involved with child protection services. (Homeless youth are 193 times more likely than members of the public to have been involved with the child welfare system.)
  • Sixty-three per cent of homeless youth experienced childhood trauma, abuse and/or neglect.
  • Indigenous youth make up seven per cent of all young Canadians, yet they constitute 50 per cent of those involved in child protection services.
  • Youth facing disadvantages of poverty, racism and homophobia are more likely to experience both child welfare involvement and homelessness. (LGBTQ2S+, transgender and gender non-binary youth are more likely than their cisgender and straight counterparts to have had child welfare involvement.)

Report highlights four key areas of concern

Systemic failures drive both youth homelessness and child welfare involvement, according to the report, which explores four areas of concern:

  1. Housing instability including being removed from the family home at a young age and living in foster care.
  2. The link between homelessness and difficult transitions from child welfare services (e.g., aging out of care). Such transitions are also correlated with poverty, lack of educational achievement, comparatively high rates of unemployment and involvement in corrections.
  3. Youth with early experiences of homelessness, especially before the age of 16. These youths are more likely to be involved with child protection services, which suggests that preventing homelessness among this group should be a policy priority.
  4. Inequity and marginalization (e.g., racism, homophobia, transphobia). This contributes to the overrepresentation of children and families of particular races and ethnicities.

Policy recommendations for governments at all levels

The report makes recommendations to the federal, provincial and territorial government as well as to Child Protection Services and Workers. “These entities must consider the policies, programs, interventions and investments in this brief that can contribute to more successful transitions from care for young people,” says Gaetz.

Aging out of care is linked to homelessness, and correlated with poverty, lack of educational achievement, comparatively high rates of unemployment and involvement in corrections

Recommendations at the federal level include revisiting its homelessness strategy to ensure that prevention is a top priority. Provincial-level recommendations include implementing an After Care guarantee so young people have support until they reach 25 years of age; and a focused strategy to support Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, gender non-binary and racialized youth.

Recommendations in Child Protection Services include:

  • Ensuring that all young people who transition from care are provided with housing options and necessary supports to enable them to fully transition to adulthood in a safe and planned way.
  • Aiding young people in accessing mental health and addictions supports, and implementing resilience-building policy and practice for young people in care, knowing that this leads to successful transitions from care.
  • Facilitating a way for young people in care to provide feedback, and employing an assessment tool to assist in determining homelessness/flight risk.
  • Providing additional training for case workers to meet the needs of adolescents and young adults in care; and ensuring that case workers have appropriate caseloads.

This proactive investment in youth would pay off, according to Gaetz. “For every $1 spent on establishing best practices and early intervention, there is a $5.60 return on investment,” he explains.

To learn more about the report, visit the website and/or its coverage in the National Post. For more information on the Homeless Hub/COH, which is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), visit the website. To read about Gaetz’s appointment to the Order of Canada, see the announcement. For more information on Gaetz, visit his faculty page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,