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Some of Canada's most vulnerable youth are falling through the cracks and ending up homeless. Here is one girl's story.When Ashley* was a child in Hamilton, her family moved constantly, and each move meant a change of schools. One relocation brought them to live with her mom's new boyfriend. "When no one was around, he would do things to me that weren't supposed to happen," says Ashley. "Then, when people were around, he would be a dad." Just a young teen at the time, Ashley told her mom she was being sexually abused, but her mom did nothing. "From then on, I realized I'm going to solve problems my own way," recalls Ashley. Within a couple of days, she moved to Toronto on her own.
Ashley stayed with her sister before her mom came to the city, having left her boyfriend. Together, they moved from shelter to shelter until they eventually got an apartment. But relationships at home were still unstable. Her brother had begun selling drugs, many of Ashley's family members refused to accept her when she told them she was gay and, one morning, she awoke to find her mom's boyfriend had returned. At 19, it all came to a climax in a fight between Ashley, her brother and her mom. "My mom told me to leave, and I've been outside since."
The bright-eyed 21-year-old doesn't flinch as she tells her heartbreaking story for the first time. As she sits across from me at Covenant House in Toronto, she has an air of toughness, with her cropped hair and wry smile. She tells me about the time she was stabbed and admits she's scared for her safety every day, though she'll never show it. Ashley had to quit school to make money selling drugs, and she spends her nights at a shelter. "You can't sleep long," she says. "You can't even close your eyes for more than two seconds because, in that two seconds, someone could take your life."
I ask Ashley, if she could have one thing for her future, what would it be? A house? "Nah, I want hope." Her voice breaks. "I get sad as shit, so hope would be cool to have."
Why youth are ending up on the streets
One in five homeless individuals is, like Ashley, between the ages of 16 and 24. While homeless youth are affected by many of the same issues that homeless adults face—family violence and dysfunction, trauma, mental illness, addiction and corrections—they also encounter additional challenges. Many youth are rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation. In fact, studies suggest that 25 to 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or transsexual. "It's not kids running away because they don't want to follow the rules; it's often kids running from something," says Loretta Hill-Finamore, director of Good Shepherd Youth Services in Hamilton.
Other research suggests that more than 40 percent of homeless youth have had involvement with child protection—in their family of origin, a foster home or a group home. And the earlier kids leave foster care, the more likely they are to be homeless. In Canada, the age that kids leave foster care ranges from province to province but generally hovers around 16 to 18. "If you're 18 and you haven't finished high school and you're done care, what are you going to do?" says Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a centre for research on homelessness in Canada, and professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto. "You can't have a decent job. You won't have any experience. You won't have a family to fall back on, a basement to move back into. It's scandalous. We create youth homelessness."
It's no longer realistic to expect 18-year-olds—let alone 18-year-olds who have experienced domestic violence or trauma—to be able to support themselves. "Today, when young people are able to get employment, it's usually low-paying, part time in the service sector," says Gaetz. In fact, across the country, 42 percent of young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 are still living with their parents because of today's economic reality.
Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto and former executive director for the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, says that sexual abuse, physical abuse or chronic neglect often precede a youth's admission to the care of child welfare, and those mistreatments are likely to blame for the youth becoming homeless. "Look at the impact that has on a child to be able to get up in the morning, let alone succeed in school and become successfully independent," he says.
*Name has been changed.
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