(By Adrian Halpert, Queen’s University)
A teenage girl from Milton, Ontario, who identified herself as S.G., wrote a short piece for a website dedicated to giving voice to the individual stories of Toronto street youth. In this piece, she describes her experience of being thrown out of her home by her mother. She reminisces about “how my mother accused me of being worthless once again, how I’ve been kicked out of my home for the third time, how completely alone I am.” She boarded a bus that would take her to Toronto where she would become one of many youths who had left home or been thrown out, and had ended up struggling daily for survival on the streets.
Canada is considered to have among the highest living standards in the world, making it hard to believe that situations like the one S.G. described are common. Yet, in Canada in 2013, approximately 30,000 youths between the ages of 16-24 were reported to be living on the street according to a study undertaken by Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter, and Tanya Gulliver, researchers for the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. Owing to the fluidity of the population of street youths and difficulty tracking them, this number is merely an estimate.
Runaways make up about half of the population of street youth. While there are many reasons a youth might choose to run away from home, according to a report by the Yonge Street Mission, a charity that works with street youth in Toronto, by far the majority of runaways are victims of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. These victims often feel trapped and isolated, and believe their only chance of survival is to flee the situation and to attempt living on their own.
The other half of the street youth population, throwaways, or “push-outs,” are youth who were forced to leave home or whose parents simply didn’t care that they left and refused to let them go back. According to Christina Veladota, a Researcher and Assistant Professor at Washington State Community College who specializes in teen runaways, some parents, many of whom have problems with substance abuse or mental illness, do not want the responsibility of children and will simply abandon them to the streets. Conflict with parents or guardians is a major reason youths are kicked out of their homes.
For runaways, leaving home can seem like a great relief and opportunity for the first few days. One runaway, identified as Baby Jill, explained: “You think that you’re running away from the pain, but you’re really just diving head first into the worst pain of your life.” Another anonymous runaway described the situation in a similar light in a story published on the website “Runaway Lives,” another website created for runaways to tell their stories. “I figured I could take care of myself better than anyone so I left,” she wrote. “The problem is once you get out on the street you realize that it isn’t that easy.” They believe they have left their troubles behind and that they have an opportunity to better their lives. However, many of these youth have no marketable skills, no notion of the responsibility involved in living independently, and because of the emotional scarring they carry with them, they often have poor social skills. The adventure can soon become a nightmare as youths realise that the “way out” has led them into an even harsher reality.
When youths begin to grasp that they are suddenly face-to-face with even more severe problems, they sometimes resort to imprudent ways to cope. After talking about leaving home, the previously mentioned anonymous runaway goes on to say that prostitution was a means by which she could earn enough money for food. While some youths do manage to get welfare or find work, more than a third turn to prostitution as a source of income. Sometimes rather than accept cash payment, street youth will trade sex for drugs, a single meal, or shelter for the night. With more than a quarter contracting an infection, sexually transmitted diseases are a major hazard for youth who engage in prostitution. According to Bill O’Grady, Stephen Gaetz and Kristi Buccieri, authors of a study done in 2010 on the violence and victimization faced by street youth in Toronto, youths who engage in prostitution are also frequently victims of violence.
Panhandling is another major strategy street youths use to generate income. Generally done in high traffic areas such as main streets, malls, or subway stations, panhandling often puts them in conflict with city officials and police who regard them as a public nuisance and try to drive them away from these areas. O’Grady, Gaetz and Buccieri have found that homeless youth in Toronto have been ticketed for offences such as sitting in a park or on a sidewalk and are harassed by the police for no other reason than that they are homeless. The result is that street youths feel alienated from and distrustful of authority figures, further impeding their efforts to get off the streets. O’Grady, Gaetz and Buccieri also contend that social services which have been set up to help street youths, like Toronto’s Justice for Children and Youth, end up spending most of their time dealing with tickets and police run-ins rather than providing any real assistance to the youths.
Drugs play a complex part in the lives of street youth. Between 5 – 10% deal drugs as an easy way to make money. The anonymous runaway quoted above, in addition to prostitution, also became involved in drug dealing in order to afford food. However, while the sale of drugs might be a source of income for street youth, drug use and addiction is rampant among them. In their chapter about substance use in “Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice,” Maritt Kirst and Patricia Erikson note that three quarters of street youth use drugs as a form of self-medication to cope with their circumstances. Marijuana is the most popular and almost uniformly used by street youth who use drugs, while about third of street youth use hallucinogens and a quarter use cocaine. Many street youth bear emotional wounds from their home lives that have been deepened by their lives on the streets. Drugs provide a temporary relief from the pain of their memories and their everyday reality.
Mental illness, according to Sean Kidd in his chapter in “Youth Homelessness in Canada,” is one of the major reasons youth leave home or are thrown out. When faced with the harshness of life on the streets, the mental health of youth who are already mentally ill worsens, and the majority of street youth with no history of mental health problems become more susceptible to mental illness. Kidd has found that over 80% of street youth are reported to suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, or schizophrenia. Despite Canada’s universal health care system, over half of the youths suffering from mental illness, through fear of stigma or lack of knowledge, are unable or unwilling to access community mental health services. Distrust of authority figures, learned both at home and on the streets, can play a part in dissuading youths from seeking help. Many youths, believing they have nowhere else to turn, often become suicidal. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among street youth; almost half have made an attempt.
Getting youth off the street is difficult, and time-sensitive. According to a report by the Yonge Street Mission, the first three months on the street are a crucial period. This is when many youths discover that life on the street is not as easy as they had thought and are thus more open to intervention. After this period, however, many begin to feel they have “made it” and feel less compelled to accept help or access services. These youth end up internalizing their situation and are more susceptible to becoming homeless adults.
Charities in Toronto, such as Eva’s Phoenix and the Yonge Street Mission, as well as government agencies such as Central Toronto Youth Services are available to help youth off the streets. Eva’s Phoenix, a housing program for homeless youth in Toronto reported that 80% of its clients succeed in leaving the streets and building a new life for themselves. The key to change lies in changing runaways’ understanding of life on the streets. As the statistics show, many of them, when given the opportunity, will strive to change the course of their lives. Throwaways like S.G. pose a different problem, yet providing a safe, stable environment for these youths has proved to be an important factor in bringing about change. While homelessness among youth continues to be a serious problem, it is a problem that can be resolved.
Reid, Joan A., A Girl’s Path to Prostitution – Linking Caregiver Adversity to Child Susceptibility. El Paso: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2012.