Friday, 7 December 2012

Homeless Youth in Canada:A Critical Analysis (Anish Alex MSW, RSW)

Homeless Youth in Canada: A Critical Analysis.
     Homelessness is a socio-economic condition, resulting from poverty and shortage of low-priced housing. World economic recession and increasing globalization intensifies the effects of poverty and produces distressful living conditions, and a pathway to homelessness. Miloon Kothari (as cited in Finley & Barton, 2003) argued in his speech to UN Human Rights Commission on April 2001 that, the negative impacts of globalization expands the economic disparity between groups, nationally and internationally. As a result, people are suffering with inadequate or unsafe housing and poor living conditions worldwide. I argue that, homeless youth and youth living in distressful living conditions are at risk. The risk factors are identified as poverty, difficulties associated with the family system, age, lack of education, race, disability, gender, lack of employment opportunity and instability of housing (Panter-Brick, 2004). Organizations with an anti-oppressive perspective can build a respectful and secure environment for marginalized homeless youth in Canada (Karabanow, 2004).
Key words: Homelessness, Poverty, Structural oppression, Youth, Canada, Anti-Oppressive perspective, 
Homeless Youth in Canada - A Social Problem

     The growing number of homeless youth in Canada includes different ethnic communities. A single outline is not possible to articulate this social problem; rather a range of profiles are required.  Reasons are various and complex. A study conducted by Miller, Donahue, Este, & Hofer, (2004) found that living conditions, poverty, problems in the family, unsatisfactory education, thrive for independence, lack of life permanence, day to day activities,  interactions with other group and  peer group hanging out are the general causes of homelessness and/or street life. Homelessness itself is not a social problem rather it is the most observable and inflated manifestation of poverty. In the study Miller et al., (2004) explored that the depression levels among street youths are alarmingly high. They are more vulnerable to dual substance abuse, alcoholism, infliction of self destruction and expose to violence. Casavant (1999a, as cited in Miller et al., 2004) explains that as a coping strategy this young population engaging in crimes and prostitution. Miller et al., (2004) cited Baron & Hartnagel (1998) described the pressure from the peer group, longer street life and experience of violence can be leads to a violent behavior among street youth.
     Though the reasons for homelessness differs the situation obscure the base problem that is poverty (Panter-Brick, 2004). The vicious cycle of poverty affects youths in different ways. Due to the economic disadvantage of the family and the complexities of global economic recession creates innumerable educational issues and inadequate food and facilities; and forced many youths to leave education and home (Finley & Barton, 2003). Due to lack of education and work experience, these young people find difficulty to get an employment opportunity, which again leads to poverty. The research by Miller et al., (2004) reveals that, even though many homeless youth in Canada engaged in some kind of survival jobs, the income is insufficient to meet their independent life expenses. As a result, these people fail to continue their education and are forced to do more than one minimum wage jobs.    

     There are many systemic barriers contributing to this social problem. The youth living in a homeless situation are oppressed by “so-called democratic society”; and considered as unequal members of the society (Finley & Barton, 2003); even though many of them are scapegoats of various interlocked oppression. The shortage of low-priced housing, a clean space to rest and study, demand of the schools, and lack of school supplies and permanent address (Finley & Barton, 2003) are barriers which directly or indirectly intensifying the issue. Insufficient financial/welfare assistance, crowded and inconvenient shelters, inadequate food and ineffective services (Miller et al., 2004) are the non supportive systems which creates negative environment.

Social Work Intervention - An Anti-Oppressive Approach

     Multidimensional social work practices with an anti-oppressive approach includes “locality and social development, dynamic participation, structural analysis of the condition, consciousness raising and social action” (Karabanow, 2004) are required to tackle this social problem. The reasons for homelessness among youth are varied, a successful intervention should focus on existing problems of street involved youth as well as identify the structural reasons contributing to this problem  Global society fails to deal with the growing urban poverty created by capitalism and globalization (Finley and Barton, 2003). The society and its various sub systems including schools are not considering the experience of a child or youth living in distressful urban poverty. A “culturally responsive science practice” (Finley and Barton, 2003) can make sense of youth in urban setting.  

    An area need to be addressed is the existing child welfare system; many street involved children and youth had prior experience in foster care, it shows the inadequacies of institutionalized child care system (Karabanow, 2004). Studies reveal that youth those who are in shelters have a long history of receiving welfare. In addition, these youth experienced numerous placements and long medication strategies, which create emotional detachment towards the service providing system (Karabanow, 2004). Karabanow also explained that long time institutional life produces street involved youth by implanting “learned helplessness”.  Current crowded shelters are producing ‘negative environment’ (Miller et al., 2004) and creates barriers to develop themselves. Most of the shelters are rooted in classic charity or religious oriented. A youth oriented alternative system can provide more humanistic services.  In the discussion, Rothschild-Whitt (1979) presented the concept of a parallel informal alternative system which can reduce “rational-bureaucratic” authority and provide immediate services in a flexible way (as cited in Karabanow, 2004).

     Changing current barriers faced by the street youth consist of a number of stumbling blocks, which need to be addressed. Financial factors pulling them back from proceeding beyond their problems. Welfare system or current financial assistance programs are not sufficiently helping them from at-risk situation. Funding for education and affordable housing is a remaining challenge (Miller et al., 2004). Apprehension of seeking assistance and taking action is the result of fear, generated from negative organizational experiences. Organizations should improve the quality of their services. Anti-oppressive approaches such as making awareness about injustice and structural forces, realization of power and diversity, structural modification in the organization (Karabanow, 2004) and sensitive services can make fundamental changes in youth’s lives (Miller et al., 2004). Raising awareness among employers and job providers are also important. Absence of sufficient education contributes to limited employment opportunities. Alternative education and job training will help homeless youth to attain a good job (Miller et al., 2004). Above all, early family intervention is the preventive technique to reduce distressful living conditions. Providing different range of programs and services to support families and protect youth at risk can make changes (Hick. 2009)

   Throughout this paper I was trying to deal with major structural problems associated with homeless youth in Canada. The common themes are poverty, lack of affordable housing, problems in the family and structure of the current arrangements (Miller et al., 2004; Panter-Brick, 2004; Finley and Barton, 2003). An anti-oppressive perspective of this circumstance is that political, economical and social factors propel youth to distressful life. Meaningful interactions and raising consciousness can develop a process of “recognizing, discovering and reconstructing the individual’s past and present, and future orientations” (Karabanow, 2004). As Karabanow (2004) refers, active participation of street youth, grass-root level social development programs, and a structural analysis of the problem (Mullaly, 2007) can make a social change in the area of marginalized homeless population in Canada.
Anish Alex MSW, RSW


Finley, S., & Barton, A. (2003). The power of space: constructing a dialog of resistance, transformation, and homelessness. International Journal Of Qualitative Studies In Education (QSE)16(4), 483. Doi:10.1080/0951839032000099499

Hick, S. F. (2009). Social work in Canada: an introduction. Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publication.
Karabanow, J. (2004). Making Organizations Work: Exploring Characteristics of Anti-oppressive Organizational Structures in Street Youth Shelters. Journal Of Social Work4(1), 47-60. Doi:10.1177/1468017304042420

Miller, P., Donahue, P., Este, D., & Hofer, M. (2004). The experiences of  being homeless or at risk of being homeless among Canadian youth. Adolescence, 39(156), 735-755.

Mullaly, B (2010). Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege (2nd ed). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Mullaly, B (2007). The New Structural Social work (3rd ed). Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Panter-Brick, C. (2004). Homelessness, Poverty, and Risks to Health: Beyond at Risk Categorizations of Street Children[1]. Children's Geographies2(1), 83-94.

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