It is widely estimated that 65,000 young people are homeless in Canada – roughly one third of this country’s homeless population. Depending on the community and region, homelessness looks very different, but regardless of whether they are young people sleeping rough in larger cities, or surfing couches in smaller ones, the common theme is the instability and uncertainty in their lives.
Instability at home, not surprisingly, affects all aspects of a young person’s life. Recent studies illustrate that youth experiencing homelessness were more likely to have dropped out of school or be expelled. Sixty five percent had been held in jail or detention. Recent studies have also documented specific health and mental health concerns which characterize the homeless youth population. A Montreal study found the mortality rate of homeless youth was 11 times higher than that of the housed youth population. Suicide, overdose and unintentional injury were the leading causes of death.  In a survey of 208 homeless youth, 46 percent had attempted suicide at some point. This same study found the social stigma associated with being homeless was linked to low self-esteem, loneliness and suicidal ideation.
We know that the longer a young person is on the street, the longer they are likely to stay there, having become entrenched in street life. It’s a vicious cycle – being at-risk and homeless makes a young person more at-risk and more likely to stay homeless. Once stuck in this cycle, young people continue to experience the negative impacts of homelessness on their physical and mental health, their social isolation, failure to attend and complete school, and perhaps most significant, are prevented from developing as young people in appropriate and healthy environments.
According to a study conducted by the Public Health Agency of Canada between 1999 and 2003 of 5,000 homeless youth, the number one reason young people leave home is because of conflict with family. This shapes our work with young people, as it must. However, with a disconnection from family, it is hard for a young people to maintain their relationships and rapport within their community.
A question that not many agencies working with young people dare to ask is: when a young person is leaving home due to conflict with family, does this mean there are no redeemable relationships with family members or ways that family may be able to act in a supportive role?
Overlooking this question means that we may be missing out on valuable resources and support for the young people we serve.