The Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework was signed in June. It’s an eleven-year agreement that allocates federal government funds to provinces and territories for new childcare spaces, beginning with families who have higher needs. Although this is a positive step in the direction of better childcare, many advocates have said it’s not helpful enough to families and their children and won’t go far enough to address our national crisis in childcare. What isn’t often acknowledged is the reality that anything less than universal childcare that is affordable, high-quality, accessible, and flexible will not significantly reduce the problem of youth homelessness.
There is a surprising number of young people in Canada who don’t have a place to call home. The most recent national data demonstrates that between 35,000 and 40,000 young people between ages 13 and 25 are homeless every year. On any given night, between 6,000 and 7,000 are homeless, whether they’re on the street or “couch surfing” somewhere with friends, family, and acquaintances. Those of us in the homelessness sector dedicate a lot of time to finding out how young people, through no fault of their own, become homeless in their preteen and teenage years. We’ve learned that it’s definitely not about defiance and bad behaviour, despite common stereotypes about the issue. So often, young peoples’ housing instability has its roots in the early years of childhood, and many systemic factors contribute to it, including family underemployment and skyrocketing housing costs. Every day, we hear so many stories about youth having nowhere to go because their families couldn’t afford the costs of living. The reality is that young people often become homeless because their families and communities are highly vulnerable to poverty.
Ending youth homelessness in Canada, a fully achievable goal in a country as rich as Canada, requires that all families have access to excellent, affordable childcare. Parents and guardians who face relentless economic struggles often get robbed of their opportunities to provide their children with all the supports they need. Sometimes, they’re forced to make difficult choices—buy food or pay the rent?—that leave them and their children vulnerable. In these situations, something as critical as quality childcare feels like a luxury they can only dream of. This is simply a national shame.
On top of that, shouldering the expense of childcare can create major family stresses and conflicts in a home. Research confirms that family conflict is a major precursor to youth homelessness, and make no mistake about it: these conflicts don’t come out of nowhere. Many are rooted in the vulnerability, pain, and heartache that poverty, hunger, and living paycheque to paycheque creates in peoples’ lives. Raising children is hard enough, wrought with its own inherent conflicts. Adding money troubles to the mix can have explosive consequences.
The truth is that youth homelessness is an outcome of many failures of our system and society to give all young people tools to thrive. Those young people further marginalized by racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are all the more placed in a position of risk. Canadian children deserve better than this.
We know that early childhood is a time of critical brain development. It’s that stage of life where children can build strong resiliency and skills that can be drawn upon throughout their lifespans as they grow into teenagers and adults. It can make the difference between living a difficult, challenging life and having a healthy life journey. We should do everything in our power to make sure that people never have to experience terrible things like being without a home at a young age, because even one experience of homelessness can harm this development and create trauma with negative lifelong repercussions.
If universal and accessible childcare is such a powerful tool to help children build solid “protective factors” against future homelessness and the dire outcomes associated with it, why wouldn’t we prioritize it as a nation? Is it not, at least, as important as quality and accessible health care and education?
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