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Ending homelessness means targeting youth early: Researcher

Cities are still putting most of their resources into emergency response and moving people out of homelessness instead of preventing it in the first place, said Stephen Gaetz.

Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, said supporting youth exiting the child welfare system is a key component of the fight to prevent homelessness.

Aaron Harris / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, said supporting youth exiting the child welfare system is a key component of the fight to prevent homelessness.

Canadian cities are failing to take preventative action on homelessness, according to a leading researcher in the field.

“If you have a burst pipe in your basement and you’re using buckets to empty it out, and then you get a really good pump to empty the basement – at a certain point you might want to say, ‘Maybe we should fix the pipe,’ ” said Stephen Gaetz, who directs the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and is co-author of the 2016 report The State of Homelessness in Canada.

“That’s never really been part of the conversation in Canada.”

Gaetz, who spoke to the University of Alberta’s school of public health last week, said cities are still putting most of their resources into emergency response and moving people out of homelessness instead of preventing it in the first place.

He said supporting youth exiting the child welfare system is a key component of “fixing the pipe."

When people age out of the system, sometimes without having completed high school, they often have trouble finding a job that allows them to afford housing.

Once a teen or young adult is on the streets, things can spiral downward quickly, Gaetz said – one-fifth of Canadian homeless youth are victims of trafficking, and predators often go into youth shelters to recruit.

He said Australia runs a successful school partnership program where youth workers go to schools to identify students at risk of homelessness and set them up with the proper supports before it’s too late.

“It’s not OK to wait to help young people. It’s not OK to wait until they’ve experienced trauma, assault, been drawn into criminal activities, had their mental health declined and they’re addicted – and then offer a helping hand,” Gaetz said.

“If that 13-year-old is couch surfing, let’s get them there – before they’re 18 and on the streets of downtown Vancouver with a needle in their arm,” he said.

While fewer than 0.5 per cent of Canadian kids have contact with child protective services, they make up more than 57 per cent of the youth homeless population.

Similarly, Gaetz said, people are often discharged from prison into homelessness in spite of evidence that doing so raises the likelihood of reoffending.

“These are fixable problems, because we know where the source is,” Gaetz said

“There’s a real opportunity to turn the dial in this country. When people talk about preventing and ending homelessness, I actually believe that we can do that.”

Edmonton a textbook example

Edmonton is leading the way among Canadian cities on the road to eradicating homelessness, Gaetz said.

He attributes the city's success largely to the innovation of Homeward Trust and Alberta's Housing First program, which moves people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing as quickly as possible with no preconditions.

Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee said Housing First is an evidence-based approach.

"It is a move away from the earned right to housing, or behaviourally having to get a whole bunch of things in order before you're housed," McGee said.

“For years, that’s what we did – we left people without housing until they got clean and sober or checked a whole bunch of other boxes.”

McGee agrees with the importance of helping youth early, specifically as they exit the child welfare system.

“How do we connect those dots, how do we really work as a system, as a society, so that we don’t have to have a Housing First program forever?” she said.

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