A holiday set aside to celebrate family is a tough moment for many of the 2,000 young Torontonians in homeless shelters and transitional houses. The reality is that “family” is a loaded, thorny term. For some of us, it’s associated with positive things: belonging, love, safety, connection. For others, their families may not be supportive and loving at all. These are the families tied up in abuse, neglect, stress and danger. These are homes where people feel driven out instead of pulled into accepting arms.
For the majority of youth experiencing homelessness, the National Youth Homelessness Survey shows that they come from homes with high levels of abuse, violence, neglect, and mental health and addiction concerns. These things easily lead to conflicts, and the majority of young people report family and parent-child conflict as the main reason they leave home and end up on the streets or couch surfing, anxious about their next meal or spot to sleep.
But it’s wrong to assume that family is a lost cause for homeless youth. We live in a society where personal success is cast as total independence. It’s a part of our colonial mythology that pushes its way into our individual thinking. You supposedly forge out, chart new territory, and become ruler of your domain. You make it on your own with little thought to what enabled you, what you took and what was given in the process. Family’s tough? Drop the concept and figure it out alone.
What a myth. None of us are independent, not even the richest and brightest with the most power. So much of what we have is a function of privileges, power and access afforded to us and not at all earned. Why in the world, then, would we treat youth experiencing homelessness as individuals who need to be solely “independent” to get housed and healthy and on the path to a better future? Especially when community connectedness and the human kindness, respect and acceptance that comes with it is what enables homeless youth to break out of homelessness for good?
Many interventions to address youth homelessness in Canada centre on individual young people themselves. Get them sheltered and trained and educated, the thinking goes. Get them medical and mental health support, access to life skills and recreation and fun and all the creative things people need to find themselves and feel better, and their lives will be better. To be clear, these are all wonderful and essential things. But they’re just not enough on their own.
Young people need family. Not necessarily the nuclear family prototype, by any means. It’s clear that families don’t have to look the same to be powerful assets. They are chosen, non-biological, blended and extended; they are aunties and uncles and grandparents and neighbours and can spring out of significant relationships with peers, coaches, mentors, educators, and community leaders. But they do have to be there, whatever shapes and forms they take.
Eva’s Family Reconnect Program builds family relationships to stop youth homelessness in its tracks. We ask young people to tell us what forms supportive, healthy family relationships take in their lives and we provide individual and family counseling bolster it. The outcomes are incredible. Many of the youth we work do not become homeless in the first place. Others get housed by themselves with family support, because the evidence shows that even when young people can’t go back home, positive relationships with family leads to a better chance they’ll stay housed. Our experience shows that, when it comes to reducing youth homelessness and its harms, family really does matter.
If we want to end youth homelessness, we should be funding more services to reconnect young people with family members who are important to and supportive of them. Like A Way Home Canada has recommended, we should be creating national housing strategies that both consider youth needs and bolster healthy family connections. We should be dedicating resources not only to individual young people who are homeless, but also to the diverse family networks they’re a part of. Instead of celebrating families today and working on housing policy tomorrow, we should combine the two, prioritizing family strength and health for the well-being and safety of the youth within them.
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