Youth homelessness in Ottawa: the most at-risk people in the capital

When people think of what a homeless person looks like, a child doesn’t usually come to mind. A large number of homeless Canadians are children and young adults. With the winter fast approaching, many are looking for a way to escape the cold. 

Last year, there were 844 youth using shelters in Ottawa.

Compared to adult homelessness in the capital, 1,352 male and female adults over the age of 50 used shelters, according to Kaite Burkholder Harris, director of A Way Home Ottawa, an organization whose goal it is to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada.

“We don’t really have a sense of the bigger number, because there’s not that many youth shelters,” she said. “There’s many young people who don’t want to be part of the system, so they are kind of off the grid.”

Burkholder Harris said the number of homeless youth in Ottawa is likely as high as 1,500.

What causes youth homelessness?

According to Jacqueline Kennelly, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, it is hard to track the number of homeless youth in Ottawa because many resort to couchsurfing, staying with friends, or staying with extended family rather than using a shelter.

According to Kennelly and Burkholder Harris, there are a number of reasons why young people become homeless.

Some of the main reasons why youth may find themselves without a permanent residence include family violence, homophobia, lack of social housing, and poverty in general.

“Young people who are part of a family experiencing financial insecurity and stress can contribute to mental health issues or drug addictions,” Kennelly said. “Typically, a young person might leave because they are actually trying help their family out by [trying] not to be an additional burden.”

According to Burkholder Harris, abuse and homophobia are two main reasons why young people are forced to leave their homes.

Apart from poverty and inequality, LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness compared to the rest of the population.

“Indigenous young people are disproportionately homeless and that has to do with the legacy of colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and the impact of residential schools,” Burkholder Harris said.

The term “intersectionality” refers to the number of layered identities an individual expresses in society.

Cosima Reyes, a peer support worker at the Youth Service Bureau (YSB) drop-in centre, said the more intersectionally someone identifies, the worse the risks of homelessness can get.

She also said homeless LGBTQ+ youth face more risks compared to others.

“If you’re non-cisgender masculine, you’re basically in a situation where you can get beat up any time of the day, even in your sleep, just because of who you are,” Reyes said.

Despite the identity politics behind youth homelessness, both Kennelly and Burkholder Harris said the main reason youth are finding it hard to escape homelessness is the lack of social housing in Ottawa.

“Canada is a wealthy country, but we have one of the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world,” Kennelly said. “That means that structurally, people are left out of opportunity, and there’s not a lot of affordable housing.”

According to Burkholder Harris, there is a backlog of people on a waiting list for affordable housing.

Despite the 320 new subsidized homes built in 2016, there are still over 10,052 active households on the waiting list for affordable housing in Ottawa, and 561 additional applicants under the age of 24, according to the 2016 Progress Report on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa.

“We’re in major catchup mode, we’re not building enough housing to keep up with the demand, so that’s a real challenge,” Burkholder Harris said.

What risks do homeless youth face? 

“When you are outside, you’re obviously a lot more vulnerable to violence,” Reyes said. “You don’t have anybody to watch you, you don’t have anything to protect you, no buffer between you and somebody who wants to harm you.”

Despite common belief, Reyes said homeless individuals are more likely to be the victims of violence than they are the perpetrators.

She also said that drugs and sex trafficking are huge risks for homeless youth, and despite what people may think, drugs are often a side effect of homelessness, rather than the cause.

Seventy-eight per cent of homeless youth in Ottawa struggle with substance abuse. On top of this, 67 per cent have serious health conditions, and 91 per cent struggle with mental health conditions, according to the 2016 Progress Report on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa.

“A lot of people turn to drugs to numb the pain of what’s going on,” Reyes said. “It’s hard being on the street.”

The weather and the elements also pose a huge risk to homeless individuals in Canada.

Freezing to death in the winter and dying from heat stroke or malnutrition in the summer are the most extreme conditions homeless people may face.

Due to a lack of housing, many homeless people are forced to move between cities and provinces for their safety.

“Cities are more high in crime, so you go further up north, where there’s less crime, but you’re more at risk of the elements,” Reyes said.

She added that a lot of people go up north in the hotter months, and come back down when the weather is less of a risk.

Resources available to at-risk youth

According to Burkholder Harris, homeless youth can get help quickly in a crisis or emergency situation, but finding stable housing is a different story.

In downtown Ottawa, there are services like Operation Come Home Ottawa and the YSB where people can get help with basic needs like socks, clothes, and food for the day.

At the YSB drop-in centre, there are criminal justice, mental health, and housing services for homeless youth as well.

“We have a priority system, so people experiencing violence are at the top of the list. The lower you are on the priority list, the more at risk you are of losing your bed,” Reyes said.

According to the 2016 Progress Report, single women and individuals in families are using shelter beds the most throughout the year, leaving homeless youth at the bottom of the list.

Reyes, who experienced homelessness as a youth, said she often had no place in the shelter because she would get kicked out as a teen.  

“Basically, any time somebody new came in, it was my bed that was taken,” she said.

Elizabeth Wilson, a first-year software engineering student at Carleton, said she left her home at 13 due to violence, but because of her age and location, finding shelter was particularly difficult.

“At the time, I wasn’t old enough to go to the shelter in my hometown, so I kinda just had to stay out on my own,” Wilson said. “I did stay with friends for a couple nights. Other nights, I would just end up at parks or places like that.”

According to Burkholder Harris, it’s important to understand that different people need different kinds of support, and there are different routes people can take to get housing.

“We really believe in getting young people the support that they choose,” she said. “Some people will want counselling, some people will need mental health support. A lot of people really crave opportunities to connect and be integrated  into the community.”

Generally, Burkholder Harris said the most common help young people ask for is how to live on their own after they have been housed, because many homeless youth have never had a place of their own before.

What you can do to make a difference

Education, understanding, and the elimination of stigma are things that would help homeless people, according to Reyes. She said the focus needs to be on preventing young people from becoming homeless in the first place, with more affordable housing being the solution.

“The evidence shows repeatedly that housing with good support is the thing that helps end youth homelessness,” Burkholder Harris said.

Apart from providing people with shelter, especially as the winter approaches, people can help by donating, and providing the simplest things like socks, food, and clothes.

“Give people socks, seriously, homeless people can’t afford to buy socks and it’s really expensive. Homeless people want socks more than they want money,” Reyes said.

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan