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November 4, 2010

Canada's homeless youth

Reuel S. Amdur

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What is the difference between a young person in care with the Children’s Aid Society who makes a successful transition to adult life and one who does not? According to Kelly Raymond, a social worker with the Ottawa Children's Aid Society (CAS) currently working on a doctorate from the University of Montreal, stability is the key. If a child has the same foster family throughout childhood, that child has a better chance of making it.

Raymond was speaking at the Forum on the Struggle Against Homelessness held by the Coalition to Prevent Homelessness Among Ottawa Francophones held at the Richelieu-Vanier Community Centre on October 20.  She painted a rather grim picture of homeless youth and of lack of success on the part of the CAS.  But first some background.

At age 16, a teen can choose to end his relationship with the CAS.  When he turns 18, he can choose to continue on with the CAS till age 21, and Ontario CAS agencies are asking the government to extend the voluntary relationship to 25.

Young people who opt out at age 16 and then find themselves in need of help face a problem.  Once they terminate their relationship with the CAS, they cannot go back.  Raymond said that teens in this situation find themselves in “a black hole.”

Why would a youth need continuing help from 16 to 18, much less to age 21 or 25?  They face difficulties around living on their own.  Homelessness becomes a real possibility because of lack of affordable housing and reluctance of landlords to rent to young people, especially those under 18. 

Many CAS clients do poorly in school and drop out, creating negative prospects for employment.  And then the real shocker: three-fourths of CAS clients need mental health treatment.  Poor self-image is also a reality.

Unfortunately, Raymond did not connect the dots. 

The CAS system frequently does not create the kind of stability needed for youngsters to make a successful adjustment.  Often they are bounced from foster home to foster home to group home, as the foster parents, who are volunteers, find the demands created by troubled behavior more than they are prepared to accept.  The foster home system, in spite of the fact that it can point to many successes, simply fails too often. 

We need a system that eliminates or at least seriously curtails the multiple placements.  Reliance on volunteers is simply not good enough. 

Fostering instead needs to be a career choice, with the CAS as employer, providing ongoing training and supervision.  Foster parents need to have a living wage and the usual fringe benefits that other CAS employees receive, along with the same union protections.  Stability is doubly essential given the mental health problems that are so frequent.

If the issue of stability is central, there simply is no other solution.

One of the workshops addressed street youth culture.  Often street youth grew up without a strong family connection.  They sometimes form their own street families, with designated street parents and street brothers and sisters. 

Where to sleep is an ongoing problem that street youth face.  Couch-surfing–moving to one friend’s place after another--is common, as is shelter use.

Sometimes young people trade sex for a roof over their heads and a meal. A new meaning for bed and breakfast. 

Street life is characterized by adventure, risk-taking, danger, and violence.  Drugs and alcohol are commonplace.  To get money, they may take part in the drug trade, prostitution, shoplifting, theft more generally, and/or begging. 

Young women on the street are in danger of pregnancy.  When they become homeless, they have difficulty moving back to the “square” world. 

Lack of education and lack of things to put on a c.v. are limiting factors.  They are likely to lack appropriate clothes for job interviews.  According to Raymond, there were 65,000 homeless youth in Canada in 2004.

Adequate housing was the focus of another workshop, looking at families. Because of a low minimum wage and inadequate social assistance rates, a number of families are forced to accept housing that is unhealthy and poorly maintained.  They may have to move frequently and sometimes become homeless. 

Some 80 families with children use emergency shelters each night in Ottawa, and, in 2009, 1,317 children spent an average of 57 days in such shelters.  These conditions result in physical and mental health problems. 

The provincial government has still not reversed the 21.6% cut to welfare rates imposed by Mike Harris.  

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