The Youth Homelessness Epidemic
Why aren't we talking about Ontario's Safe Streets Act?
Josh Scott - MANAGING EDITOR
Sure, your hydro bill sucks. You know what else sucks? Getting fined or jailed for trying to survive. As citizens, we ought to push for a more rehabilitative and less punitive governmental approach to homelessness. Legislation like Ontario’s Safe Streets Act — which calls for police to issue fines to those without the means to pay them (and in certain cases, even calls for jailtime) — is severely misguided. Why aren’t we talking about this?
In Canada, approximately 7000 youth (between the ages of 16 and 24) are homeless on any given night. 48% report family conflict as the main cause of their present circumstances. Yearly, 35 000 youth go without a place to call home. The mortality rate of homeless youth is approximately 40 times that of housed youth.
50% of homeless youth come from middle and upper-income families. 65% have failed to complete high school. 77% are unemployed. 43% have been in the child welfare system.
On any given night in Toronto, it is estimated that there are as many as 1000 to 2000 homeless youth. One in five identify as LGBTQ.
According to an international study released last year, poverty (as opposed to delinquency) is the leading cause of youth homelessness around the world. Internationally, 39% of homeless youth cite poverty, 32% cite family conflict, and 26% cite abuse as the main reason why they are living off the streets; in contrast, 10% cite delinquency.
This study was led by U of T’s own Paula Braitstein — an associate professor of epidemiology at Dalla Lana School of Public Health, based out of Kenya. Braitstein holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Applied Public Health Chair.
In 1999, Ontario passed the Safe Streets Act. It was supposedly designed to deter panhandling and other forms of solicitation. In practice, it criminalized activities used by the homeless to survive, in, it seems, an effort to protect the general public from the discomfort of having to view or interact with the homeless firsthand.
In light of her study’s findings, Braitstein finds Ontario’s Safe Streets Act misguided. “Criminalizing youth or instituting policies that assume they are thieves, delinquents or drug addicts, won’t help,” she said.
Today, Ontario shows no intention of repealing its Safe Streets Act, despite the best efforts of people like former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant, who blames himself for not scrapping the act when he had the chance. “Let’s stop criminalizing the poor for being poor,” says Bryant.
Needless to say, the logic of fining and/or jailing the homeless foracting as homeless people must, by necessity, to survive, is absurdly inane.
If, as recent studies have suggested, deliquency is not the leading cause of youth homelessness and instead, it is family conflict, then the logic of the Safe Streets Act strikes me and should strike you as akin to the logic of fining and arresting a stray dog for begging for food. Not only are both parties completely incapable of paying said reparations, they are each about as likely to “reoffend.”
Above all else, the first step towards combatting youth homelessness is eliminating the stigma that surrounds it — along with any notion that homeless youth have themselves to blame, when in truth, all signs point towards larger factors entirely beyond any individual’s control.
And why, in particular, does youth homelessness matter?
“A strategy to address youth homelessness will not simply result in fewer people who experience homelessness, but rather, contribute to the longer-term reduction in poverty within the province,” states a 2015 report from York University’s Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
As students in downtown Toronto, we encounter homeless people on a daily basis. With the rising cost of post-secondary education, many of us do not have the money to spare. Nonetheless, for those that wish to make a difference, however small, there are other ways to help.
At U of T, student clubs like Street Patrol try to do their part. Organized by the Newman Catholic Students Club, Street Patrol is a group that not only delivers packages of sandwiches, clothing, and other supplies to the homeless, but also engages with them in meaningful conversation. Street Patrol’s monthly gatherings welcome newcomers. If you would like to donate or take part, check out the U of T Newman Catholic Student Club on Facebook.
In the city as a whole, not-for-profit organizations like The Trek for Teens Foundation do important work. Founded in 2007 (with help from the Rotary Club of Etobicoke), Trek for Teens raises money and awareness for homeless youth in local communities. To date, it has raised over $66 000 in funds and in-kind donations for local shelters through the efforts of volunteers and participants. Run by youth, Trek for Teens has engaged thousands of young people across Canada.
Alex Wichert (The Mike’s 2015-2016 Sports Editor) serves as Trek for Teens’ Director of Media & Advertising, in addition to being on its Board of Directors. Among other duties, he deals with promotion, branding, and outreach; basically, he manages Trek for Teens’ public presence.
“Youth homelessness is often overlooked or misrepresented in common sentiments because of its stigmatization,” says Wichert. “It [also] affects more people than one might think.”
According to Wichert, the topic of youth homelessness, compared to “other equally worthy causes,” does not receive nearly as much “attention and effort” as it deserves.
Trek for Teens holds numerous events across the city and on-campus, and is always looking for fresh faces — volunteers and student leaders alike. If you’d like to get involved with Trek for Teens in some capacity, visit trekforteens.com/contact. You can also reach them through their U of T affiliate, student-run Trek for Teens Club.
You can only shove so many people into the closet before the door breaks; making homelessness less visible doesn’t make it go away. Right now, we’ve got a crisis, and Ontario’s hands are dirty. Now there, is a conversation worth having.
In order to approach youth homelessness properly, our understanding of its causes needs to shift. As uncomfortable as it might seem, let’s start a dialogue. At the absolute least, the Safe Streets Act has got to go.
*Statistics drawn from Covenant House Toronto (unless otherwise specified).