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Understanding Youth Homelessness

More than 1.3 million children are homeless at some time each year ( Ellen, Bassuk, Friedman, and M.D, 2005). 1 in 8 youth will leave home and become homeless in need of resources (DuRolf, 2004). Throughout the country homeless youth have the same characteristics: exposure to physical violence, mental health problems, substance abuse, sexual, and mental abuse. They are often isolated with no family ties and few friends. Many have been raised in foster homes, have a lack of education and skills, and suffer from poor physical health (CBC, 2009). Homelessness is defined as to be without a place to live. The homeless can be categorized into 3 subgroups(Casavant, 1999):

•The Chronically Homeless: This group includes people who live on the outskirts of society and who often face problems with substance abuse and
mental illness (Casavant, 1999).

•The Cyclically Homeless: This group include individuals who have lost their homes for various reasons, such as a loss of job, a move, a prison term or a hospital stay (Casavant, 1999).

•The Temporarily Homeless: This group includes those who are without accommodations for a relatively short period of time. People who have lost their homes due to natural disaster often fall into this category (Casavant, 1999).

There are many factors to how one becomes homeless; loss of job, marital failure, natural disaster, substance abuse and mental illness. When it comes to youth homelessness the reasons tend to revolve around the family (CBC, 2009).

Runaways are the majority of youth who are homeless. Thousands of children run away from home each year in Canada. In 1995, 75% of the 56,749
children who were reported missing to the police where runaways. These youth tend to leave home due to sexual, emotional, and physical abuse (CBC, 2009). In 2004, 872,000 children were reported to child protective agencies to be victims of child
abuse (Meghan’s Law – Information on Registered Sex offenders, 2006). Prior to leaving home, 43% of youth report being beaten by a caretaker, and 1 in 4 have had caretakers request sexual activity (Whitbeck, 2002). Almost half of homeless youth
witnessed domestic violence (Homes for homeless and Institute for children and poverty, 1999). Some runaways reported leaving home because of their parents’ drug and alcohol abuse. 44% of homeless youth report that one or both of their parents have received treatment for alcohol, drug, or psychological problems (Goldstein, 1998).

A large portion of homeless youth has some involvement with the child welfare system. These youth had once lived in foster homes or youth shelters and have now fled to the streets (CBC, 2009). Nearly 20,000 youth are emancipated from foster care each year. (Department of Health and Human Services, 2005) 65% of emancipated foster youth lack stable housing (Child and Youth Permanency Branch, 2005).

A shortage of good jobs and affordable housing are a contributing factor to youth homelessness. Many youth live on the streets because their families became homeless. A study by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAS) found that in 2000, housing was a factor in 1 in 5 cases where children were taken into care. A lack of housing caused a delay in returning children home to their parents (CBC, 2009).

Homeless youth stay in a variety of places; they don’t all end up sleeping on street grates or in doorways. A 1999 Toronto based survey found that (CBC, 2009):

•60% of street youth are staying in one of Toronto’s youth shelters (CBC, 2009).

•25% of street youth are staying in apartments (92% were staying with friends and ‘couch surfing’) (CBC, 2009).

•15% were staying on the streets of which 4% were living in squats, and 9% in parks, alleys, and doorways (CBC, 2009).

Experts are calling homeless shelters a band-aid-solution that only offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Yet some experts argue that there is some shelters that are quite innovative. The occupancy of youth using shelters is about 80%. Many youth would rather live under bridges in squats, or on the streets than indoors(CBC, 2009).

Many people raise the question why don’t homeless people just get a job? Homeless people have different ways of getting money. A 1999 Toronto based survey found that (CBC, 2009):

•36% of street youth earn money by begging and squeegeeing (CBC, 2009).

•19% do break and enters or sell drugs (CBC, 2009).

•18% receive social assistance (CBC, 2009).

•10% engage in sex trade work (CBC, 2009).

Some homeless youth find legitimate jobs in areas such as; general labour, painting, welding, bike carriers, cooks, cashiers, telemarketing, babysitting, and retail sales (CBC, 2009).

Most homeless youth have worked in the sex trade. Male and female, 31% reported engaging in street prostitution, phone and Internet sex, or
massage/stripping at least once in their lives. On average, sex trade workers had left home at a younger age and had been on the streets the longest. They likely grew up in foster homes, and left home because of problems pertaining to both physical and
sexual assault. They were also the least educated (CBC, 2009).

When these youth were asked if they would like to have legitimate employment, 83% of males and 87% of females said yes. This indicates that street youth are unhappy about making their money through the sex trade, and would rather paid employment (CBC, 2009).

Some factors that are holding homeless youth from paid employment include; no fixed address, lack of skills and experience, no phone, no transportation to and from work or to even find work, unsuitable wardrobe, legal problems, lack of motivation,
health problems and literacy problems (CBC, 2009).

Homeless youth face many hazards such as: being attacked by predators, teen pregnancies, and physical and mental health problems (CBC, 2009).
45% of street youth reported being attacked in the year of 2006. Only 6.3% of their non-homeless peers reported being attacked. 42% of street youth reported being assaulted or threatened with sexual assault (CBC, 2009).

Teen pregnancy is an ongoing issue for street youth. The rate of street women getting pregnant is 2 to 3 times greater than non-homeless women. The younger the women became homeless and the longer they stayed on the streets, the greater the
probability they would become pregnant. The average age for street women becoming pregnant is 16 years old (CBC, 2009).

A study conducted in 1997-1998, by the Hospital for Sick Children and the Shout Clinic found that among 93 street involved females, an alarming number have had pregnancies. 59% of the youth reported that they have been or are currently pregnant. At the time of their first pregnancies 29% of the youth were living on the streets, 27% in shelters, and 43% with friends or family (CBC, 2009).

32% of all pregnancies were miscarried. Miscarriages are 2 to 4 times higher among street youth than the general population. This was due to poor nutrition, substance abuse and sexually transmitted infections. 22% were terminated by
choice, 34% delivered, and 12% were still pregnant (CBC, 2009).

The reason street pregnancies are so high is connected to socio-economic status and self-esteem: many feel that the responsibility of caring for a child may give them a sense of empowerment. They feel it may bring a traumatic change to bad
situations. They are also less likely to use protection, due to a lack of responsibility
and understanding (CBC, 2009).

The health risks to street babies include: being born premature, babies are stunted in their physical development, fungal infections in their mouth, skin rashes, diaper rashes, feeding problems, other issues like FAS is common with street babies (CBC,

A 1992 survey showed that 92% of Ottawa street youth had attempted suicide. Street youth experience a range of physical, psychological and emotional health problems. These are related to unsanitary and precarious living conditions, inadequate nutrition, violence, alcohol and drug use, risky sexual behaviours, low-self-esteem and ongoing social rejection (Chenier, 1999).

Facts about hazards homeless youth face:

•Homeless youth suffer twice as many ear infections, have four times the rate of asthma, and have 5 times more digestive problems (Bassuk and Friedman,2005).

•The number of homeless youth diagnosed with learning disabilities is double compared to the rate of non-homeless youth ( Newton, MA, 1999).

•75% of homeless youth have dropped out of school (Grayson, 2002).

•One in 3 homeless youth has a major mental disorder by the time they’re 8 years old (Bertie, 1999).

•The rate for substance use disorders among homeless youth is 85% (Bertie, 1999).

Each year Canadian taxpayers are spending roughly $1 billion to deal with homelessness. The city of Toronto and the Ontario government spend roughly
$120-million a year to fund the 65 permanent shelters and Out of the Cold programs (CBC, 2009).

In BC it costs the government 33% more to provide health care, criminal justice and social services to a homeless person than a socially housed unemployed person ($24,000 a year, compared to $18,000 a year). The combined service and shelter costs of the homeless people ranged from $30,000 to $40,000 per person for one year (including the costs of staying in a homeless shelter) (CBC, 2009).

A BC study showed it costs (CBC, 2009):

•$155-$250 a night in a provincial correctional facility (CBC, 2009).

•$380 a night in a psychiatric hospital (CBC, 2009).

•$60-$85 a night for emergency homeless shelters, which include meals and services (CBC, 2009)

•$80-$185 a night in a Detoxification Centre (CBC, 2009).

It has been estimated that to virtually eliminate the homeless, it would cost all levels of government in Canada $3.5 billion. This would go to pay for affordable housing, income support (like welfare) and some support services (CBC, 2009).

There are several programs across the country for homeless youth:

•Street Reach, St.John’s, NL
Street Reach was formed in 2004. Street reach targets youth with multiple issues including addictions, housing, prostitution, poverty, justice, health etc. Their goal is to provide youth with information and referrals to appropriate
services, provide food resources, information and support to youth and anyone in need of services. Street Reach primarily serves youth aged 15-29 who are disconnected from support services(Community
Youth Network: St.John’s, NL, 2007).

•Choices for Youth, St.John’s, NL
Choices for Youth opened in 2004; they provide moving assistance to low-income families who are relocating residence. Choices for Youth is a community based supported housing program. They focus their attention on youth aged 12-29 (Raising the Roof, 2003).

•Ndinawe, Winnipeg
A culturally based resource that offers community based programs to marginalized youth, including those involved in or at risk sexual exploitation.
Activities include employment programs, sports league, drum group, homework club and much more (Raising the Roof, page 1, 2003)

•Ottawa Inner City Health Project, Ottawa, Ontario
Provide health care services to men and women who are chronically homeless and unable to use regular services due to lifestyle or complex health needs
(Raising the Roof, page 1, 2003).


1.Bassuk, E., & Friedman, M.D. (2005). Homeless Children in America.

2.Casavant, L. (1999). Homelessness in Canada.

3. CBC. (2009). Homelessness in Canada: Issues and Solutions.

4.Raising the Roof – Homeless Youth Programs