As Canada’s largest youth shelter, we are often asked why young people experience homelessness.
It’s a simple question with a complex answer as there are countless pressures that result in 40,000 youth experiencing homelessness every year in Canada. All of them are connected to systemic problems in our society.
“There are many times that a young person will come into shelter saying their family fell apart because of some kind of conflict,” says Maria Ricardo, Mental Health and Substance Use Counsellor at Covenant House. “It’s not one conflict: It’s years of stress, years of being under resourced, years of being oppressed. That impacts not just the youth but also the entire circle of care surrounding them.”
While this has been true over the twenty plus years Maria has worked with Covenant House youth, she has also, in that time, witnessed the “crumbling” of systems that support individuals and families: Access to safe and secure housing, access to health care including mental health and substance use support, the now skyrocketing cost of living which has required people to work multiple minimum wage jobs and rely on food banks to barely scrape by.
This constellation of pressures can mean youth miss out on important developmental milestones in relationship-building within their families and their external supports at a crucial time in their lives. This can then negatively impact their ability to maintain healthy relationships outside of their families. Often when youth come to Covenant House, she says, it is the first time they’ve felt connection.
“We do all that we can. We engage relentlessly with them, we show up for them each and every day, we remind them of their value, we work as a team to really help this young person see that they do have a right to their future, despite the tremendous difficulties they have had to endure at such young ages,” she says. “And yet in the background we also know that they can’t afford the housing market at all, they can’t afford to buy the food they need to sustain themselves. We also know that youth experience homelessness in fundamentally different ways than adults, due to their age.”
Covenant House family counsellors, occupational therapists and mental health and substance use counsellors work together to provide an integrated web of support for young people experiencing homelessness. While we work to be solutions-focused, the systems at large need to do the same, Maria notes.
“Without changes to these systemic issues and having communities supporting our young people, they will continue to be at risk of homelessness, isolation, and have higher incidents of hardship which will negatively impact their mental health.”
Maria believes that a focus on community connection while tackling these larger systemic problems will make a huge difference for youth in ensuring homelessness is brief and non-recurring.
“We want to reconnect young people to move beyond the identification and experience of homelessness. We want them to be able to blend into society as a regular member because that’s who they are.”