Amal Cross spent her teenage years being bounced between foster homes, youth shelters and group homes across Greater Victoria. Once she turned 19 and aged out of government care, she felt like she was left to fend for herself with little support.
“When I hit 19, I was so lost,” said Cross, now 22.
She started couch-surfing, staying with friends in often unstable environments, something that took a toll on her mental health.
“Once you feel you’re about to be homeless, that’s really all you think about,” she said. “That does create stress and it can spiral in any direction, lead to depression, anxiety.”
Cross’s experience with the foster system is reflected in a Canada-wide study on youth homelessness that finds a striking link between the child-protection system — which is given responsibility by the government to ensure young people are protected from harm, neglect or abuse — and housing instability.
The report by Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, called Without A Home, offers a snapshot of the challenges facing homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 24. Homeless youth make up 20 per cent of Canada’s homeless population.
It found that about 60 per cent of homeless youth had been part of the child-protection system. About a quarter of those said they had “aged out” — government care ends at age 19 — an event many said played a role in their homelessness.
The report is based on a survey of 1,103 homeless youth in 42 communities in nine provinces and Nunavut.
Cross now lives in her own apartment funded through Threshold Society’s Safe Housing for Youth program. Threshold has capacity for 40 youth, but the society’s executive director, Mark Muldoon, said that comes nowhere near meeting the demand. The Kiwanis Emergency Youth Shelter has 10 beds for youth between the ages of 13 and 18, and the Pandora Youth Apartments, a transitional housing complex, has eight units and a long wait list.
“The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is between 16 and 24,” Muldoon said. “I see youth housing as an upstream solution. With young people, one or two degrees of intervention can change everything dramatically for the whole trajectory of their lives.”
The Coalition to End Homelessness, which conducts a point-in-time survey to track Greater Victoria’s homeless population, identified 120 homeless youth out of1,387 people experiencing homelessness. That number, captured during the 2016 count, likely underestimates the total, said Don Elliott, the coalition’s executive director, because it doesn’t capture youth who are couch-surfing or sleeping in cars.
Emily’s first experience with the Ministry of Children and Family Development happened when she was 13, after concerns were raised that her younger brother was frequently absent from school. Her mother was abusing alcohol while taking medication for terminal cancer. Emily and her brother stayed with her grandparents temporarily, and she ended up leaving home at 15. Emily’s mother died in March.
“I think the ministry is a bit of a broken system,” said Emily, 18, who did not want to give her last name.
“I felt they didn’t have the compassion. They went in there, investigated, tore things apart without offering that much support or services to help. There was no therapy … so we had to kind of repair this on our own which was difficult because there was a lot of moving parts.”
Emily now lives in the Pandora Youth Apartments downtown. She works part time for the Community Social Planning Council, doing research on how different government policies intersect in the lives of youth in care and those leaving care, which gives her insight into something she experienced personally.
“I did find Victoria doesn’t have enough subsidized housing for young people,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have been couch-surfing if I had gotten into one of the programs, but the wait list is really long.
“There are a lot of homeless youth who are worse off than I was, like actually on the street, and they’re not getting the help that they need.”
Pat Griffin, executive director of the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society, said the province made a $26-million investment to house residents of the Victoria courthouse tent city, “but they’ve put zero into youth housing.”
Griffin recently had a meeting with staff at Our Place about setting up a transition program for people ages 19 to 25 to bridge the gap in services for youth and adults.
Indigenous youth make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless population, and the report found that 70 per cent of Indigenous youth surveyed reported involvement with child protection services.
Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, executive director of the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, said Indigenous children who have been removed from their families are caught in a “vicious circle” of poverty.
“From my experience, children were not only removed from their family, but from an Indigenous extended community, ancestral lands and their cultural identity, which creates complex challenges,” Hunt-Jinnouchi said.
“Because in addition to losing family connections, the children in care have a real sense of loss of self, of cultural identity. Sometimes they are left feeling like they don’t belong in either the western world or their own.”
The report calls on the federal government to adopt a youth homelessness strategy to develop better tools. It recommends that provinces and territories continue to provide support to youth in care even after they have turned 19.
Bernard Richard, B.C.’s child and youth advocate, said he’s spoken with the NDP’s new minister of children and family development, Katrine Conroy, about the importance of extending care beyond the age of 19, something he says is particularly crucial for Indigenous youth.
He said there is also a need for more resources to support families before they break down.
“In B.C. we’ve been fairly successful in reducing the non-Indigenous youth in care, but we’ve had little to no success in reducing the number of Indigenous youth in care,” Richard said.
Conroy attended the Ignite Youth Spirit gathering in the Cowichan Valley last week, listening to concerns from Indigenous youth about the system and the anxiety around aging out of care. Conroy said she’ll be working over the next few months to expand support for youth.
“We know that few young people — regardless of their family situation — are ready and able at age 19 to get by without some kind of outside support in their lives,” Conroy said.
“At one time or another, most of us have reached back to our families for help as young adults, and it’s this ministry’s duty to make sure that type of support is in place for the young people in our care.”