Experiences of Being Homeless or at Risk of Being Homeless among Canadian Youths

Article excerpt

Background

The Canadian Council on Social Development in a survey conducted in 1987 found that almost 12% of those in homeless shelters were under the age of 16 (cited in Casavant, 1999a). It is important to understand the phenomena of homelessness among young people, as adolescents are deemed more vulnerable to violence and victimization associated with life on the street (Casavant, 1999a; Rosenheck, Bassuk, & Salomon, 1999) and the psychological impact of homelessness (Adlaf & Zdanowicz, 1999). The reason for these vulnerabilities is related to their lack of the personal and social resources necessary to buffer against the negative effects of this life style (Adlaf & Zdanwicz, 1999).

Youth is defined differently in different research endeavors. The range is generally from 12 to 24 years of age (Canadian Council on Social Development, 1987 as cited in Casavant, 1999a) or some subset within this range (e.g., 12-24 in Adlaf & Zdanowicz, 1999; 12-17 in Calgary Homeless Foundation, 2002; 16-21 in Karabanow & Rains, 1997; 13-24 in Raychaba, 1989). Homeless youths are those who experience homelessness on their own rather than as part of a homeless family group (Robertson & Toro, 1999). Collectively these have been referred to as street youths or kids, runaways or throwaways, and homeless youth.

Youths (aged 12-17 years) make up approximately 24% of the homeless in Calgary (Calgary Homeless Foundation, 2002) with 69% of them being male and 31% female. The pathways to homelessness for youths are multiple and complex (Rosenheck, Bassuk, & Salomon, 1999). Many of these youths have been forced out of their parents' home or do not even know where their parents live. Many leave home because of emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse. Since this group, like other groups of homeless people, is very diverse, it is difficult to provide a typical profile. However, a 1986 study (more recent data is not available) found that the following characterize runaway/homeless youths: (1) the average age is 16 years; (2) many (63%) are from Calgary homes; (3) approximately 77% claim they can meet basic needs for food, and about 67% find adequate shelter, however, 50% admit to doing it through illegal activities; and (4) the majority have not completed grade 9 (Kufeldt & Nimmo, 1987). Existing research has done little to explore this diversity.

In an attempt to understand the many issues confronting homeless youths and those at risk, researchers have begun to conduct studies aimed at discovering subgroups of homeless youths or those at risk of homelessness. The aim of the research is to further refine and more specifically target the delivery of services. Studies have focused on the reasons youths become homeless and the effects of homelessness; a few have studied the coping strategies used by youths on the streets (especially substance abuse, prostitution, and criminal activity).

A simplistic typology in the research has been runaways (those who leave home because conditions have become unbearable), and throwaways (those who are forced out of the family home)--two of the most common reasons for homelessness (Adlaf & Zdanowicz, 1999). Kufelt and Nimmo (1987) noted the distinction between youths who were runners--those who tend to leave home with the intention of not returning and in and outers, who impulsively run away as a temporary coping mechanism. A significant proportion of homeless youths in this study left home from substitute care arrangements, with those who experienced physical and/or sexual abuse more likely to be in the category that left home with no intention of returning.

Ayerst (1999), in a comparison between homeless youths (aged 12 to 25) and their non-homeless peers (aged 16 to 25) in a smaller Canadian city reported that street youths suffered from significantly higher levels of depression and stress than did their non-homeless peers. The homeless youths in this study were significantly more likely to have a life style that included use of drugs, alcohol, and infliction of self-harm. …

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