Youth homelessness has been a growing concern at CERA. With a housing crisis gripping communities across Canada and huge waiting lists for affordable housing, this particularly vulnerable group is getting an even shorter end of a short stick.
The common assumption when viewing street youth is “You punks get a job!” or “Get rid of the attitude and go back home.” What people do not realize is that youth on the street are rarely there by choice. They are often forced to leave an abusive or oppressive household or care facility. Many have never had a home or family. After foster care hopping, many youth eventually decide a life of streets may be the safest choice.
Over the past 3 months, CERA Ottawa, with the support of the Law Foundation of Ontario, has offered a weekly outreach program at Operation Come Home, a youth drop-in facility in the downtown core. This program enables us to bring our services directly to the youth who need them. While speaking about housing and discrimination issues, youth often share experiences that are both heartbreaking and inspirational. Many of the youth we speak with have been in and out of foster care and group homes and have survived numerous instances of abuse. Despite this, they are now doing their best to “make life happen.”
I find it inspirational to watch these young souls doing their best at 17 to write a resume, apply for jobs, start their own business, call landlords and find an apartment, meet their social assistance worker, attend to health needs, and take care of daily hygiene, nutrition and sleep requirements – all while balancing mental health issues from years of abuse. I know many individuals (and I’m sure you do too), who at 20, with the emotional and financial support of their parents and family, can hardly get it together. Society hardly blinks at them, while the youth of the street are barked at for being “lazy.”
In the last session I posed the question, “what does it mean to be homeless in lower town?” The responses were interesting. A female participant, aged 18, responded eagerly, stating that “Living in lower town makes it easy to be homeless.” She continued, “The Salvation Army will give you sleeping bags for free, you can eat for free at a number of drop-ins, and you can shower at the YSB [Youth Service Bureau].” While these services are critical, the young woman emphasized that, “We need more services that actually help us get a home.” Another participant, male, aged 22, added, “when you’re homeless, Ontario Works only gives you $200.00 for your basic needs. Try eating three meals a day for a month with $200.00. It doesn’t work. But if I had a home, I could maybe buy enough Kraft dinner to last me a month, and I could cook food from the food bank.”
The youth maintained that the most important thing in their lives is a safe, clean, and affordable home. With a housing allowance of $356/month, rental options are scarce. Many youth end up in rooming houses. A female youth, who had been homeless on and off for five years, stated, “You don’t know what it’s like to live in a dirty rooming house, with mice and cockroaches, and creepy unknowns opening your door in the middle of the night; it’s not safe, and it makes you feel sad. That is where I live.”
A male participant, aged 19, stated, “We need a system that works, more services that help us find housing we can afford, and landlords who will actually rent to us.” He continued, “I finally found a landlord that would rent to me, but because Ontario Works thinks I’m homeless, they only give me $200.00/month. When I tried to contact my worker to say I found a landlord that will rent to me, and to please give me my housing allowance, my worker took so long to call me back that the landlord rented to someone else.”
The youth we meet face a number of barriers to housing which can make homelessness almost inevitable. There is nothing easy about being young without a secure, stable, safe, and affordable place to live. The barriers in the social welfare system combined with the discrimination they face for being part of societies “unwanted” often make a life on the streets the only option.
So, when you encounter a young person on the street, don’t be quick to make assumptions. Take time to ask how they are doing, and if they know where they can find the services they need. Don’t be afraid to smile or share what’s in your heart and your pocket. The world needs change.