Addressing homelessness starts with our youth

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      By Maria Howard

      Perhaps you’ve already heard the phrase “hidden homelessness”: it’s the idea that people experiencing homelessness aren’t always visibly homeless. To put it bluntly, they aren’t always living on the street, in tent encampments, on sidewalks, or in parks.

      What the public doesn’t always see are the people couch-surfing, staying with friends or family, living in their cars, or sleeping in abandoned buildings.

      Women and youth are more likely to experience hidden homelessness. Wonder why? It’s often as simple as feeling unsafe in shelter environments, worried about being exploited or shamed.

      The Homeless Count for Greater Vancouver goes to great lengths to uncover hidden homelessness, working with non-profits and community groups who connect with the homeless population on a daily basis. Yet the report still maintains that 2023’s count of 4,821 people represents only the minimum number of those who are experiencing homelessness on any given day.

      That’s why a 32 per cent increase in homelessness compared to 2020 is so alarming. It’s a frightening upward trajectory since the Homelessness Services Association began the count 18 years ago. Some communities across the province saw even higher growth rates of homelessness.

      According to the report, nearly half of survey respondents (47 per cent) say they first experienced homelessness under the age of 25. This matters—it means that the time for significant intervention and support is when a young person first experiences homelessness. It means if we can provide immediate, comprehensive support to youth, we can mitigate chronic homelessness throughout their adult lives.

      Family Services of Greater Vancouver (FSGV) has long made the case that investing in support for homeless youth has long-term benefits. Our agency has supported the unhoused youth population through Directions Youth Services for more than 30 years. In that time, staff have observed how much more complex the housing crisis has become. Not only do youth face astronomical housing and food costs, but also increased trauma and brain injury from the toxic drug supply, the effects of polarization in the 2SLGBTQIA+ culture war, decreased trust with the systems in their lives, and increased anxiety over the climate and other world events. It’s simply not getting easier.

      In Canada, young people ages 15 to 24 have the highest rates of mental illness and/or substance use disorders across all age groups. One in four adolescents have been cyberbullied, with higher victimization rates among trans and non-binary youth, and those with learning disabilities or chronic health conditions.

      I think many of us can remember a time when we felt othered. Did you have someone to turn to? A trusted parental figure to get advice from? Even with that support system, you might have felt alone. Now imagine having nowhere to turn.

      Over the past few years, the Province has expanded the Foundry network across BC, giving youth and families a place to get wraparound mental health and addictions services. This is a fantastic part of the support system and an early intervention tool to help put our kids on the right track.

      The same level of response, action, and resources is imperative when a young person falls through the cracks and becomes homeless.

      At Directions Youth Safehouse, one of our emergency housing supports for teens aged 16 to 18, we’ve seen stay times getting longer and longer. Even with the support of a youth worker, these kids—and they really are just kids—can’t find safe housing. If they do, they still have no family support system. They still have no role model figure in their lives to call on to ask questions about laundry, or groceries, or other home essentials, or job hunting. They have no fall-back when inflation eats into their paycheques and they once again don’t know when they’ll eat their next meal. 

      Homelessness Action Week just wrapped this year, having taken place from October 9 to 15. But our work doesn’t stop. Throughout the entire month of October, FSGV is looking at Directions Youth Safehouse’ past, present, and future. We’re taking the long view to notice the trends that lead to youth homelessness—trends with solutions that are often underfunded.   

      If you’re a parent or there are youth in your life, you already know how much they rely on you for support. You know that we’re responsible for their health and wellbeing. So let’s champion the comprehensive supports that show homeless youth we care. Let’s provide them with long-term safe housing and invest in their futures. Let’s bring an end to youth homelessness.

      Maria Howard is CEO at Family Services of Greater Vancouver.