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June 9, 2019

On the street

Reuel S. Amdur

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Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, unhealthy, unsafe, stressful, and distressing. That is what Sue-Ann MacDonald old an audience at Ottawa's Algonquin College on May 30. She was citing Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. She is an Associate Professor of Social Work at the Université de Montréal.

The program on May 30 addressed the experience of young people who have been homeless.  MacDonald put some numbers to the problem.  250,000 Canadians are homeless.  Of these, 20% are youth.  Males are twice as likely to be homeless as females.

Indigenous youth become homeless at a younger age.

MacDonald noted high rates of mental illness.  31% of those in one sample examined suffered major depression, 27% were bipolar, 36% experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 40% were substance abusers. 

So how do youth become homeless?  She pointed to adversity in the lives of young people before becoming homeless, adverse childhood experiences (ACE). 

Because of the lack of engagement with society’s formal services, homeless youth may turn to other forms of support, for example poetry, music, or herbal remedies.

Yet, paradoxically, in spite of all the negative aspects of life on the street, it can have an attraction because of the freedom it offers.

Benjamin Roebuck, an Algonquin College Professor of Victimology and Public Safety, who co-authored with MacDonald the recently published Staying Alive While Living the Life, also spoke at the event.  He said that people become homeless because they do not have the same choices that other people have.  For example, in one study it was found that 60% experienced some form of violence prior to becoming homeless.  He is working with a group of youth who suffered violence while they were wards of a Children’s Aid Society.  They are seeking class action status to sue because the CAS did not inform them of their right to apply for Criminal Injuries Compensation.

He also threw out a comparison of Statistics Canada victim experiences to the experiences in a survey of homeless youth.  The question related to the experiences in the year previous.  For crime in general, 19% of Canadians were victims, while for the homeless youth surveyed the figure was 68.7%, 7.6% experienced violence, as did 59.6% of homeless youth in the sample surveyed.  14.3% of Canadians encountered property crime, as against 57.9% of our homeless sample.  Clearly, being a homeless young person is no picnic.

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