youth homeless couch surfing

A Message from our CEO Margo Long

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be using social media to bring awareness to our evolving understanding of WHEN and WHY chronic homelessness occurs, and how, by focusing more upstream in the system to help youth in crisis, we can save time, money, and lives.


Why it’s vital we focus MORE on youth homelessness—


By preventing youth homelessness, we prevent adult homelessness.


According to a National survey of adults experiencing homelessness, 50% were homeless before the age of 25[1]


When surveyed, most youth said they left their homes because of breakdowns in family, community, or system relationships. These young people experienced some combination of abuse, neglect, mental illness, racism and/or discrimination from adults in systems that were meant to protect them.


The homeless youth of today become the homeless adults of tomorrow if those adverse childhood experiences and early trauma in the home, system, or community are left unacknowledged and untreated.


To use a familiar metaphor, we have been pulling drowning adults out of the river for years. Now that we know WHY and WHEN they are falling in the first place, focusing further upstream is clearly more time and cost efficient.


Pulling a small child or youth out of a river, just as they fall in, is much easier then pulling a full-grown adult who has been struggling for a long time.


The current homelessness support system is heavily focused on improving and bringing back affordable housing services that were cut back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. And rightly so. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, mass homelessness in Canada emerged around this time because of government cutbacks to social housing and related programs starting in 1984.


In 1993, federal spending on the construction of new social housing came to an end. In 1996, the federal government transferred responsibility for most existing federal low-income social housing to the provinces.[2]


However, our knowledge is evolving.


Currently, 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada[3].Two groups emerge from this population. The first group needs support to gain housing and once that need is provided, are able to live a comfortable life. The second group, which is sadly referred to as the “hard to house”, is a group which is filled with people who are entrenched into the system of shelters, sleeping rough, and short-term accommodations.


We are learning more and more that homelessness is often a symptom of much deeper emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical issues in individuals in our communities and the main cause of these issues is untreated trauma.


“Trauma” can be defined as any form of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or violent experience that has a negative impact on the physical, emotional, and developmental well-being of an individual. Untreated trauma negatively affects the way we see ourselves and those around us, it negatively affects our brain chemistry and architecture; and unregulated trauma responses can lead to a cycle of barriers and destructive behaviours that further prevent us from having healthy relationships with ourselves and others.


For many individuals experiencing homelessness, housing instability is a symptom of an unbroken cycle of hurt and re-traumatization that undermines self-esteem and the ability to have positive relationships. These issues become deeper and harder to address as the cycle continues and the issues compile.


It seems clear then, that unless we intentionally address the traumatic experiences that people in our community have, we will never truly stop the symptom of homelessness. To avoid people becoming entrenched in homelessness, the best time for this process of healing is while people are young.


Prevention of Youth Homelessness is Prevention of Homeless


Prevention refers to policies, practices, and interventions that either (1) reduce the likelihood that a young person will experience homelessness, or (2) provide youth experiencing homelessness with the necessary supports to stabilize their housing, improve their wellbeing, connect with community, and avoid re-entry into homelessness[4].


So, our evolving system must evolve to focus MORE on youth experiencing homelessness. Ideally, preventing youth from experiencing trauma through family or community breakdown, but if not—then preventing them from being further entrenched into the cycle of untreated trauma and the resulting symptoms of homelessness.


Key Policy Recommendations


We are making three key policy recommendations to which immediately make an impact on homelessness in our community.


1) Serve young people under 30 differently.


The current Canadian system to address homelessness is primarily focused on housing, sheltering, and supporting adults (individuals over the chronological age of 18) through the same infrastructure and programs, but youth have unique needs in the system[5].


The development of the Frontal Cortex and executive reasoning area of the brain continues until age 25 in healthy resilient brains. This development can be altered or slowed if a youth is in crisis, and we cannot presume a fully reasoning adult brain just because someone is over 18. In addition, children and youth often have difficulty understanding what has happened to them in traumatic situations and can be highly shame based and disrupted. This often also negatively affects their ability to have healthy relationships with themselves and others.


Furthermore, many of the youth we see at our agencies have not been taught the life skills necessary to live stably or independently and we often see housing or employment opportunities falling through and subsequent re-traumatization because youth are not ready to be on their own.


2) Increased sustained funding to youth agencies for staffing


Youth are different and focusing on the prevention of youth homelessness is more strategic as a true preventative effort (early prevention is even better), then the system of care that addresses youth homelessness must have the capacity for the intense time, expertise, infrastructure, and people capacity required to do such complex work.


We need to provide more funding to youth agencies, specifically around staffing to ensure that youth have long term relationships with expert youth workers. What a youth in crisis needs most is safe, healthy, and stable relationships with consistent and predictable adults. Our funding does not currently support this scenario.


3) Create seats for Youth Agencies at the larger homelessness planning tables


Focusing on youth homelessness also means ensuring that youth agencies have a seat at the larger homelessness planning tables, to ensure that the unique needs of youth are being met and that we are shifting our larger response more to prevention and stopping the cycle of trauma – rather than only on emergency-based reaction.





[1] Gaetz et al. 2019. We Can’t Wait: The Urgent Need for Youth Homelessness Prevention. Parity, 32(8), 6.

[2] Stephen Gaetz, Erin Dej, Tim Richter, & Melanie Redman (2016): The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press

[3] Stephen Gaetz, Erin Dej, Tim Richter, & Melanie Redman (2016): The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press

[4] Gaetz, S., Schwan, K., Redman, M., French, D., & Dej, E. (2018). The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness. A. Buchnea (Ed.). Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.

[5] French, D., Gaetz, S., Redman, M. (2017). Opportunity Knocks: Prioritizing Canada’s Most Vulnerable Youth. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press