There was a time that people in Canada didn’t know about Poliovirus.
All they saw were individuals, many of whom were children under five, struck with a recognizable collection of signs like muscle weakness, pain, and fever. In some cases, the sick children got better. In other cases, they died. And in rarer cases, they came out of the experience with a long-term disability. It wasn’t until after a scientific understanding of viral infections was developed that people knew the source of the illness and that a vaccine could be developed to prevent it.
Youth homelessness isn’t a disease, but its presence is still incredibly impactful in peoples’ lives. It consists of a recognizable collection of symptoms including lack of shelter, low community connections, high isolation, and a great deal of trauma, amongst many things. And these “youth homelessness symptoms” signify deeper systemic problems. A big one of these problems is the poverty faced by many young people and families.
Canada is a wealthy country, but of course, that wealth isn’t equally accessed by everyone. Census data shows that one in seven or 4.9 million Canadians live in poverty, and a quarter of them are children under 18.
Many adults living in poverty have jobs that don’t pay enough for them to sustain themselves, their children, and other dependents. It’s getting more intense as time goes on with a combination of slow economic growth and an increase of costs of living that outpaces wages. Many families with low incomes spend more than 50% of that income to keep a roof over their heads, leaving little for necessities like food, heat, water, transportation, and childcare.
In a family context of financial strain, young people are at a high risk of becoming homeless through absolutely no fault or failing of their own. What if family breakdown happens? What if a parent or guardian can’t work or an unexpected expense hits? Living on the edge amplifies the risk of losing housing.
This financial stress is an ever-looming reality for young people who don’t have many family supports to begin with, such as youth in care and youth who come to Canada on their own as refugees.
Young people facing poverty and homelessness face all kinds of additional overlapping barriers and discrimination. For example, it’s difficult to get hired when you don’t have a permanent address or access to a phone, unreliable transportation, interview-appropriate attire, and a consistent sleep schedule. It’s no wonder this leads to such trauma, pain, and mental and physical health concerns. Poverty and its right-hand-partners, underhousing and homelessness, run young people ragged.
Unlike the situation we were in before Poliovirus was discovered, the sources of youth homelessness are not a mystery. We know that eliminating poverty will drastically reduce the instances of youth homelessness. That’s why we have to correct the systemic issue of poverty at the same time that we address the symptoms, including a lack of safe shelter.
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