Reimagining Responses to Youth Homelessness

Homeless Hub Podcast – Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness

The Homeless Hub 2014

Examining youth homelessness in Canada through the lens of a new report, Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness. Stephen Gaetz is the director of the Homeless Hub and the author of the report. In this interview, we talk about the report, how he sees it being received, and whether Canadians are ready to turn ideas into action when it comes to solving youth homelessness. (22 minutes – Listen to Part 2 here)

Homeless Hub Podcast [Ep 2]: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness

I’m here with Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University. Thanks so much for joining us on the Homeless Hub podcast!

SG: There hasn’t really been any evidence of progress in reducing the numbers of homeless and the reason is, I would argue, is because we’re coming at it the wrong way. Our investment has been in the emergency response. If we wanted to really see a shift, we would have to move aggressively to change from focusing on emergency services to focusing more on prevention on one hand and on identifying people in the homeless sector, in the shelter system who are chronically homeless and move them into housing as quickly as possible.

The communities that have made that shift with the homeless population as a whole have seen great results in Canada. In Alberta, that’s where a lot of the real innovation is, so Edmonton for instance has seen a 30% reduction in overall-all homelessness between 2008 and 2012. That’s very dramatic. Medicine Hat, the figures are quite stunning. They haven’t released this yet, but they’ve virtually eliminated chronic homelessness in their community so that the only people in their shelters are there for a day or several days and move on. They don’t have people who are mired in the shelters for 10 to 15 years anymore.

So this is important in that if we shift from an emergency focus to prevention and moving people out of homelessness who are chronically homeless we can make an impact. What we need to understand with youth is how to do that with young populations. Understanding that because the causes of homelessness are different for adults and young people the solutions are going to have to be different as well. Some communities are starting to develop strategic responses to youth homelessness. Calgary has, Kamloops has, Kingston is starting to do this and if we cans see more of that where they really put issues of adolescence and young adulthood at the centre of the response we’ll probably start to see some of those numbers that Saegert reported drop in time. But the reality is very few communities are targeting youth homelessness in that kind of concerted way.

There’s a lot of good reason to really focus our energies on youth homelessness. In Canada now, the priority of the Government of Canada and many provinces is to focus on chronic homeless adults. In particular, adult men who make up the bulk of the homeless population. This is people who’ve been homeless for multiple years. Who have very complex mental health and addictions issues. I would argue that we need to focus on youth homelessness because I would predict that many if not most of those people who are chronically homeless adults, their homelessness started when they were teenagers. So we really need to stop right there if we want to think about it in a preventive way. Putting our energies into ensuring that young people get the supports they need, so that not only they can they get off the streets but that they can live healthy lives and can live well. That means giving them time and support and an opportunity for an education to help them move forward with their lives.

JV: You mention that youth homelessness, as a broader issue, really began to grow about 20 years ago. Now obviously going by the name of your report which is Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada you’re looking to revamp the current models of response to youth homelessness. However, before we really start talking about what’s wrong and how it can be fixed could you highlight some examples of what’s been done right over the years in responding to youth homelessness?

SG: Well there are many communities that have done a good job of addressing youth homelessness in Canada, but most communities don’t. It is worth identifying those that do though. Sometimes it’s a community level response, an integrated response like in Hamilton or in Red Deer, Alberta where they’re actually trying to work to pull together the different players to develop an integrated model of support.

In other cases it’s outstanding programs which pop up all across the country. In St. Johns Newfoundland there’s Choices for youth which is a big innovator that has done an incredible job with developing employment and housing support for young people with the focus on green jobs, developing training to address energy poverty in that province. In Winnipeg, you have the RaY program that’s also a big innovator providing supports for young people who are homeless so there are those kind of examples across the country. The Boys and Girls Club of Calgary is one of the ones I always look to because they have eight programs that on their own are integrated models of support. That involved some programs that target youth homelessness prevention, you’ve got emergency supports, and they also have interesting housing models from transitional housing to Housing First and so these are like shining examples and there are many more in Vancouver, in St. Catharines and Hamilton that really point the way to what we should do for Toronto.

Part of the problem, I think though, is that innovation historically has stayed very close to ground. As these programs do the innovation they’re not funded or don’t have the capacity to sort of tell their story more broadly to others. If you were in Saskatoon or somewhere could be anywhere, and you wanted to figure out, “well how should we address youth homelessness?” It’s kind of hard. You have to rely on your connection you know, “I heard that there’s a cool thing in Ottawa! How am I going to do that?”I think for too long we’ve relied on that. That just sort of, the luck, serendipity of having to know someone in a different city. We have to get better at doing research on and evaluating programs and describing through case studies what works, for whom it works, and how it works. That’s part of the responsibility of the research community, but it’s also a responsibility of funders. We’re starting to build, in a sense, really good examples in this country. Now what we have to do build the means for other communities to learn from and adapt those models to their own communities.

JV: One of the topics that you bring up is this idea of adolescence interrupted. Now in the report you do expand on what this is, but I think our listeners would really be interested in hearing a bit more about just what this is and how it factors into the broader discussion around youth homelessness.

SG: Yeah this is an idea that I’ve thought about for a long time when I used to work in the youth homelessness sector in the ‘90s. We have, in Canada or any country, we have understandings about the transition to adulthood and what it involves. In Canada, here are some of the things that I think most people agree with. Adolescence can be a challenging time for young people, depends on the young person, but it involves all kinds of changes. Physical changes, physiological changes, becoming sexual beings, cognitive shifts, all these kinds of things that are important. Learning to be an adult, learning to have adult relationships, learning how to communicate, how to work together, so these kind of things are happening during adolescence. Also there’s a whole lot of other kinds of learning that goes on. Young people stay in school, and nowadays they stay in school much longer than they would have 10, 15, 20 years ago, but young people are also learning how to get by in the world. Everything from how to drive a car, how to set up a doctor’s appointment, get a dental appointment, how to rent your own place, getting a first job, what do you do with your first paycheque, all of these things happen to young people in dribs and drabs gradually over time and they accumulate. That experience accumulates to the point where we can move out, hopefully, in a successful way, get our own place, earn enough income, develop relationships, and become independent. Any adult went through that process and for most of us it took a number of years to do that.

What happens with young people who are homeless is they experience what I’d like to call adolescence interrupted, so that gradual process of becoming an adult suddenly comes to a crashing close when a young person becomes homeless. Rather than have the time to become an adult now everything changes. At 16, 17, 18 you’re now expected to figure out what they want to do, they have to go get a job, school is now part of the past, they have to start being responsible in terms of their money, save their money for rent, don’t spend money on frivolous things. All of these things come crashing down on somebody where they have to instantly become an adult at the very moment when they’ve left home and are suffering the trauma of loss of family, and friends, and community maybe are escaping traumatic situations. So you take young people who are in this extraordinary context of loss and difficulty and now expect them to be more adult than a young person who is living at home and has the time to grow up. We’ve turned that completely upside down, right.

These are the very young people who need support and need time and need the chance to grow into adulthood to repair the damage that maybe contributed to their becoming homeless in the first place. Instead we’ve created a system that suddenly puts the emphasis on becoming independent as quickly as possible. And I think that’s a real set up. It’s unfair to the young person to place these kinds of demands on them when we wouldn’t with somebody who’s housed and it’s going to produce the kinds of results that we don’t want to see. Which is, young people are going to get stuck. Their self esteem is going to decline. Their ability to move forward in life’s going to be compromised. They may get involved with addictions. They may get in trouble with the laws. All of these things happen when we don’t take seriously the needs of a growing and developing adolescent.

This is a key thing that’s different, right. It’s because many programs and models and funders will only give young people support for a limited time. Shelters may only allow you to stay for only three weeks or three months. Transitional housing models might give you support for a year. None of this makes sense when we’re talking about young people. The story I always say to people is that my own children live in transitional housing and it’s called my house. What happens in my house is that they get shelter, they get financial support, they get adult mentoring, they get the time to grow into adulthood. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make two steps forward and three steps back on occasion. They’re going to learn life skills. They’re going to get a chance to develop healthy social relations. All of these things, but it’s going to take as long as it needs to take. When my kids turned 16 I didn’t say “you’ve got one year to get it together and out you go” because it doesn’t make sense today.

They need to take as long as is necessary and so we should actually build our model of accommodation and supports around that sensibility, not time delimited. If we want young people to stay in school we can’t tell them they have to leave in a year because then they’re focused exclusively on getting work. We have to contract with them and say, “we’re going to support you until, up to 24, for instance, and if you want to go to school that’s great, if you want a job that’s great, but we’re going to help you move forward in a way that makes sure that you are healthy, that you’ve developed healthy social relations, that you get involved in meaningful activities.” And if we do that, we’re going to have better results.

JV: And with that we’ve come to the end of episode 2 of the Homeless Hub podcast. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing Conor’s story, hearing about the Coming of Age report, and if you want to know more you can head over to and check it out for yourself. If you’ve got questions, comments or any sort of feedback for us you can reach the Homeless Hub any number of ways. You can email us at You can find us on Facebook at And, of course, you can tweet us at @homelesshub. For everyone here at the Homeless Hub, I’m Justin Vasko, thanks for listening.



One thought on “Reimagining Responses to Youth Homelessness

  1. I enjoyed reading about Stephen Gaetz perspective on youth homelessness and his opinion on how a more effective solution can be created. I believe that Gaetz brings in a very interesting and valuable perspective. The implementation of a system that attacks the cause of and helps prevent early youth homelessness can prove to be much more useful than emergency services. Youth homelessness can lead many down a dark path and is incredibly damaging to the future of youth and their lives. Gaetz’s concept of adolescence interrupted is an idea I also began to think about while reading more about youth homelessness. Adolescence is a very important time for all people because of so much rapid change. When someone is expected to immediately transition to and understand every aspect of the adult world, it’s unrealistic. I undoubtedly agree with Gaetz’s idea about needing to accommodate and understand the needs of a developing adolescent in order to create a more effective solution. The cause of homelessness is different for many, especially for youth and adults. For young people to become proper functioning adults, a healthy and supportive learning environment is necessary. The different responses from communities to prevent youth homelessness such as the “Choices for youth” in St. Johns Newfoundland or the RaY program in Winnipeg proves that an effort can be made. However, just as Gaetz said, accessibility and innovation for these solutions can be improved. Youth homelessness can be prevented, however, new accommodations and solutions need to arrive. Now is the time for a change.

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