Introduction to Housing First for Youth

Who is Homeless?

When you think about a youth who is homeless what comes to mind?   What assumptions do we have about people who are homeless that might get in the way of our efforts to help them? Our attitudes and assumptions may get in the way of understanding how to solve a problem.

You might be surprised to learn that about 20% of the homeless population in Canada are young people between the ages of 13-25. That’s about 6,000 or 7,000 on any given night. 

A disproportionate number of homeless youth are from marginalized groups (source):

  • 29% of homeless identify as 2SLGBTQIA+
  • 31% identified as Indigenous
  • 28% identified as members of racialized communities

Why are so many young people homeless? 

Some people believe that youth choose to leave home — to seek adventure or see the world. Others think that youth are side-stepping family rules and responsibilities. But the picture of the carefree, lazy or delinquent youth is far from reality.

  • Many youth experience homelessness from homes with high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, parental neglect and exposure to domestic violence (Gaetz & O’Grady, 2002).
  • Many have endured bullying and discrimination, gender-based prejudice and racism. (Abramovich, 2012; 2013).

HF4Y is one part of the overall strategy to support young people to exit homelessness. With a focus on well-being, HF4Y works to stabilize their housing so that they remain housed. This approach, designed to meet the needs of developing adolescents and young adults, has been shown to be effective in preventing young people from returning to homelessness once they have been housed. Most importantly, preventing young people from experiencing homelessness reduces the likelihood they will experience chronic homelessness as adults.

In Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Study (Gaetz, et al., 2016), the researchers found that youth experienced high rates of housing instability. Over half had stayed in more than one location the previous month, and 10.2% stayed in more than five places. Among youth in the study, 75% reported multiple episodes of homelessness and experiences of housing instability for years prior to their current experience of homelessness.

Youth experiences of homelessness are different from adults in many ways. The circumstances of becoming homeless, the way it is experienced, and how they access and receive services are also different.

Young people have unique needs:

  • Youth are developing physically, socially, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually
  • Youth homelessness often arises from problems or conflict in families, abuse or neglect
  • When youth enter homelessness, they have little experience with independent living. They are usually are leaving situations when they were dependent on adult caregivers.
  • Youth have little or no work experience and face additional barriers to employment as a result of their homelessness
  • 2SLGBTQIA+ young people have often experienced bullying and discrimination
  • Indigenous youth, Black youth and other young people of colour experience racism and discrimination
  • Youth are frequently forced to abandon their education because of homelessness
  • Youth are in the process of transitioning toward adulthood and may not have acquired personal, social and life skills that make independent living possible.

While the majority of young people who use shelters may only be there for a short time (temporarily disconnected), a significant number of young people stay for much longer (“unstably connected” and “chronically disconnected”). In the Without a Home study, Gaetz found that almost one third of the young people (31.4%) in the study were continuously homeless for more than one year (chronically homeless), and 21.8% were episodically homeless, reporting multiple experiences of homelessness over the past three years.

Their experience of homelessness is also different:

  • Young people may avoid the homeless-serving system out of fear of authorities
  • They move in and out of homelessness and are more likely to ‘couch surf’ than access shelters.
  • Youth may not know about services and supports that are available in the community.
  • Youth may not trust that services will deliver. This may be as a result of past negative experiences with public systems.
  • Homeless youth report high rates of exploitation and victimization, including sexual assault and human trafficking.

Once homeless, housing instability continues, health, mental health, and addictions worsen, and young people are increasingly exposed to trauma-inducing criminal victimization. A major result of prolonged homelessness is that young people become entrenched in street life and disengage from education and employment. Gaetz, 2014: 26

Housing instability undermines health and well-being. The longer young people are left to experience homelessness the greater the risk that they will experience long-term negative outcomes. Research findings show that when young people experience homelessness for longer periods, there is a greater risk of long-term consequences such as: [Ref: harms to youth]

  • Declining health and well-being, including nutritional vulnerability
  • Increased risk of exploitation, violence, criminal victimization, physical and sexual abuse.
  • Greater involvement with the police and the justice system.
  • Disengagement from school and difficulty securing employment.
  • Loss of youth development milestones.
  • Mental health problems and addictions, because life on the streets is inherently stressful.
  • Difficulty exiting the streets and moving forward with one’s life (many chronically homeless adults today first experienced homelessness when they were young)

Housing that is safe, affordable and appropriate

Youth must be able to access interventions before they become entrenched in street life and exposed to further exploitation or victimization. HF4Y provides access to housing that is safe, affordable, and appropriate. With mainstream housing support programs, there are requirements such as compliance or participation in programming. People are expected to demonstrate a level of housing readiness before they gain access to permanent housing. So-called “readiness requirements” cause steep barriers especially for young people who have experienced periods of housing instability and may also be dealing with mental health and substance use issues.