This blog post is the fourth part of the Eva’s Innovation Lab Spotlight series   

This year, Eva’s Solutions Lab has been working to identify barriers and possible interventions to the pathways, young people take in and out of homelessness.  As a culturally and systemically responsive organization, this work is central to the work we do.

The Solutions Lab team found two key trends on what drives and prolongs journeys into youth homelessness: The Snowball Effect and The Opportunity Gap.

Multi-colour sticky notes on a whiteboard wall

Data analysis project room with captured research insights on the pain points, opportunities, tipping points, and quotes from young people’s journeys

The Snowball Effect 

It is well-documented that it is expensive to be poor in North America. The poor have less access to financial safety nets.  One small, unexpected cost like a parking ticket can ‘snowball’ into outsized effects. For example, an impounded car leads to job loss and then housing loss.

The Snowball Effect is typically applied to poor adults; we noted a similar spiral into out-sized effects can be observed in young people’s pathways into housing precarity and homelessness. When a young person’s stability is hanging by a thread (i.e., threatened by housing precarity, financial instability, and/or concerns for safety), small events can have a more severe impact than what might be experienced under stable conditions.

For example, JP, a young person interviewed for this project, broke his arm, which jeopardized his job and led to JP not being able to pay rent. JP then lost his housing and had his first experience sleeping rough on the streets. The broken arm—a literal bad break—spiraled into an experience of homelessness.

We observed that access to resources—financial, social, psycho-emotional, etc.—serves as a protective factor that decreases one’s risk of homelessness. This access to resources can show up in different ways from access to financial safety nets to having a community of people that take them in, to the increased likelihood of good mental health that comes from stable housing.

Due to the generations of discriminatory practices in areas from immigration policy to homeownership to credit to employment to education, access to resources is unequal in Canada. Just as the colour of poverty is so often racialized, the structural factors and systemic failures behind youth homelessness mean that the face of youth homelessness in Toronto is so often disproportionately Black, Indigenous, racialized, and otherwise marginalized (e.g., LGBTQI2S+).

The Opportunity Gap 

Young people experiencing housing precarity and homelessness have access to fewer opportunities than those living in stable living conditions. In education, this is referred to as  ‘the Opportunity Gap’ and can be similarly named in the homelessness sector.

Just as educators understand the Opportunity Gap in education to be “the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, and other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students” (Glossary of Education Reform, 2013), similar factors can predict a young person experiencing homelessness’ access to opportunities.

While the Snowball Effect speaks to access to resources, the Opportunity Gap speaks to access to opportunities. Opportunities such as the ability to choose where to live, where to spend time, how to take care of oneself, how to earn a wage, or even who to trust and build a relationship with, are all limited for young people experiencing homelessness.

The Opportunity Gap is particularly wide for young people in the middle of immigration applications, who are increasingly utilizing shelter services. Young people who have recently immigrated tended to, understandably, have a more limited social network, meaning they had fewer places to turn when things went wrong.

The Opportunity Gap often forced the young people we interviewed to make incredibly difficult decisions such as opting to sleep outside in order to leave an unsafe home. For young women and female-identified youth, the choice between homelessness and an unsafe relationship that put them at risk of violence. This was particularly acute and exemplified in Zahra’s story:

“Dad’s friend was angry at me. I don’t know how to explain it. So for him paying for my schooling, he wanted something in exchange. When I couldn’t deliver, the whole relationship broke off. So now I’m in a new country and I’m homeless.” 

 With limited networks and housing opportunities, newcomer refugees may come directly from the airport to the shelter. Ausma, one young people we interviewed, told us that:

“I came to the airport and claimed refugee status. I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I was going to Canada. The [Immigration officer] asked me where I was going to stay. Then she called the shelter.”

While shelter staff can offer support in the search for jobs or housing, a newcomer refugee young person still faces additional and unique barriers to system navigation, compounded by race and culture.  The barrier of discrimination from landlords and/or employers, which impacts a young person’s ability to find stable housing, stood out. Said one young person:

“Landlords don’t want to take us when we’re refugees or we live in a shelter. They don’t even want to text us.”  

The Opportunity Gap is dictated by the systems within which we exist. As our colleagues Aaron Munro, Vikki Reynolds, and Rachel Plamondon aptly put it in Lessons from Self-Organising Shelter Communities:

“We are often asked, ‘What happened to these people? Did they make bad choices? Do they use drugs?’ These questions construct the complexity of homelessness in an unjust society as a personal responsibility of individual homeless folks. We believe people are responsible for their choices, but only those choices they have the power to make. People are not responsible for the social context which limits choice.” 

 Why these stories matter 

These stories represent a slice of the ones we see every day at Eva’s, stories of systemic failures, stories of resilient young people, stories that remind us of all the collective work we have still to do.  To help guide some of this collective work, our final article in the Innovation Spotlight series will take a solutions-focused look at journeys out of youth homelessness.

This project entitled Journeys In and Out: Youth Homelessness Solutions Lab received funding from the National Housing Strategy under the NHS Solutions Labs, however, the views expressed are the personal views of the author and CMHC accepts no responsibility for them.