Thirty per cent of the homeless population in St. John’s are youth, and of that, nine per cent are younger than 15, a group of professionals heard Monday while gathered to discuss the topic.
“That is high,” said Stephen Gaetz, a researcher and director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.
“That is above the average in Canada at 20 per cent and even that is an unreasonable percentage,” said the associate professor in the faculty of education at York University.
Gaetz was the guest speaker Monday during a synergy session at the Gower Street United Church held in partnership by the Harris Centre-Memorial University and Choices for Youth.
After his presentation in which he talked about a new report, “Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada,” he told The Telegram there needs to be a new approach to getting young people off the street.
“Some research suggests clearly in Canada and U.S. the chronic homeless adult population, homelessness started when they were teenagers, so we could be in for trouble,” he said.
“If our solution is only to provide people with three hots and a cot in an emergency shelter, that’s not good enough. Yes, it meets the need on that night, but the longer you let a young person stay mired in homelessness the deeper they are going to get,” said Gaetz.
Without shelter, support and intervention, he said, society may as well dump them on a street corner next to the nearest drug dealer, because they are vulnerable and there are more than enough people ready to exploit them.
Sheldon Pollett, executive director for Choices for Youth, said the statistics on youth homelessness came from a recent study by the St. John’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness.
He said the data is from 2012, but the numbers remain high.
“Last year, through all our programs we served over 600, and this year we have over 700, so that is a growth of 100 people coming through our doors looking for help in one year. That is huge,” said Pollett.
“And those numbers don’t include the young people who got turned away because the beds were full. We need a master plan around supporting youth with housing and the other things in their life they need,” he said.
“We have to deal with the older populations, but if we dont’ have a clear plan around this youth population all we are going to do is perpetually graduate young people into homelessness,” said Pollett.
One thing that can be done, said Gaetz, is to modify the federal government’s Housing First model — a framework to provide shelter to people who are homeless and then set up supports to address issues such as mental health and addictions, abuse and unemployment.
“It can absolutely work,” he said.
“The key idea behind it is that people should have a safe shelter and supports to provide them the chance to grow into adulthood to develop confidence, to take risks, take chances at their own pace. They need support and time to develop who they are and we have to not be so impatient,” said Gaetz.
He talked about discrimination, healthy living as well as helping young people transition into independence with guidance and mentoring.
Rob Monette, Jules Bailey and their three month-old daughter took in Gaetz’s presentation. Monette and Bailey, both university graduates in their 20s, said he hit on some important points regarding young people and their place in society.
“If you graduated from university or college 20-30 years ago, you got a job, but now I have an associate degree, (Jules) has a bachelor’s degree, and I pick up construction jobs. I worked on ‘Republic of Doyle’ ... but most young people I know, having a university education really only means not only do you not have a good job, but you’re also $40,000 in debt,” said Monette, who also volunteers with the Refugee and Immigration Advisory Council.
Forget about buying a house, they said, as the costs for a family home have soared beyond affordability.
They said they’re renting with three children, ages three months to nine years, so their challenges and struggles are different than those faced by some of their friends, who are just leaving their family homes.
“We’re kind of the odd ones, having moved out early, but you can see where people get into trouble,” said Bailey.
Regarding Gaetz’s points about not discriminating against young people, Monette said it’s bothersome when people are critical about what they don’t know.
“Some of them look at homelessness and say they deserve to be there, they chose to be there. It’s very easy to make those judgments when you’re in a balanced situation and haven’t been through what they have been through,” he said.