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Editorial: We can’t afford homeless youth

So why don’t those homeless kids cluttering up our streets just get jobs or go to school? If it were only that easy. It’s also a case of reversing cause and effect.

So why don’t those homeless kids cluttering up our streets just get jobs or go to school? If it were only that easy. It’s also a case of reversing cause and effect. Many are unemployed or not in school because they are homeless, not the other way around. They need housing, as well as a range of support services, to help them out of homelessness and onto a path to self-reliance.

Homelessness is a disability. It is a barrier to employment and education. It leads to deterioration in physical and mental health.

Homeless people are more likely than the housed population to be involved in drug addiction and crime. They are responsible for a disproportionate share of public expenditures in the health-care and justice systems.

While some people are homeless because of their problems, their problems are worsened because of homelessness. Studies have determined that providing housing creates a better base from which to deal with those problems.

People helped out of homelessness into housing have shown they can do better at overcoming their problems and build better lives. They contribute to society rather than drawing on its resources.

It’s good to cure homelessness; it’s far better to prevent it, especially among young people.

In a study that included interviews with homeless youth, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness identifies 10 pathways into homelessness and proposes a similar number of pathways out of homelessness.

The factors contributing to homelessness include family conflict and breakdown, lack of employment and training opportunities, lack of affordable housing and difficulty in obtaining income supports and other services.

The report points to a “serious” lack of services for youth between the ages of 19 and 24. Homeless youth outside the downtown core are at an even greater disadvantage, because that’s where most of the existing services are concentrated.

Solutions suggested in the report include prevention programs in school that would include teaching more than just academic subjects.

“They need to stop just thinking that kids only need to learn … social studies, or they need to learn about math,” one young person told researcher Meghan Ignatescue, “because, really in the end, that’s not as important as learning life skills.”

Andrew Wynn-Williams, coalition executive director, said there is a stereotype that youth are homeless because they choose to drop out of school.

“It’s often quite the opposite,” he said. “They become homeless and then they can’t stay in school.”

It’s a similar situation with employment.

“I got fired … because [my employer] found out I was homeless,” said one study participant. “That’s one of the vicious cycles: In order to get a job, you kind of need an address.”

The report calls for increased youth access to supports and services. It seeks to ensure that youth are not discharged from government care into homelessness when they turn 19. It asks for more emergency shelters and other services for youth, as well as more housing options. It recommends developing a regional youth employment development system.

“There’s this misconception that youth are choosing to be homeless, that they just don’t want to follow the rules,” said Ignatescue. “But that’s not the case. Most of the youth we talked to are not there because they want to party or choose to be. Most really want to work and get out of their situation.”

Helping youth out of the downward spiral of homelessness will necessitate more resources, more public expenditures.

But investing in supports and services for vulnerable youth is a bargain compared to what it will cost us in the future if we don’t help them now.