Stephen Gaetz believes he knows your perspective on homeless youth: “The public likes to think they are bratty runaways who didn’t like to do the dishes,” said Gaetz, an Associate Professor at York University and the Director of Homelessness Hub, an online research centre.

 

“But in reality,” Gaetz said, “if you lived on the street for a week and had to worry about getting your head kicked in and wearing the same pair of socks, you would probably head straight home if you could. We know those who remain on the streets face very difficult, very complicated, and often abusive situations in their homes.” 

 

On any given night in Toronto, approximately 2000 youths under the age of 24 sleep on the streets. Among young people, there is also a growing population of “invisible homeless”—youths who sleep on the couches of friends, in abandoned buildings, or who are otherwise unacceptably housed.

 

Furthermore, female, male, and trans* youth are at often "woven into arrangements with predatory adults" in which an individual gets a place to sleep, yet is forced to submit to the demands of that adult figure, said Emily Paradis, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto.

 

The vulnerability of homeless youth is often reflected in the state of their mental health, for example, homeless youth are 40 times more likely to commit suicide or die of a drug overdose than a housed youth. 

 

In addition to structural barriers and social stigma, it appears that in Toronto, homeless youth also face political backlash. Mayor Ford has espoused his opinion about people facing homelessness well before his mayoralty. Paradis was attending a Toronto City Council meeting in which the council was voting on a motion to ban individuals from sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square when she first encountered Councillor Rob Ford. 

 

After the vote ruled in favour of banning sleeping in the square, Rob Ford rose and walked over to the barrier where civil society members had gathered to watch the vote, "he yelled—to all these people who had come to participate in civic proceedings, many of whom would be sleeping on the streets that night—‘you should all just get a job!’” said Paradis. 

 

“To have a mayor who openly exposes and promotes those views, it makes it more acceptable in general for people to be open about those kind of views; it teaches people to regard homeless people in a deeply disrespectful way,” elaborated Paradis.

 

Serena Nudel, a Toronto-based Youth Worker and Youth Access and Equity Panelist explained that youths in Toronto face specific barriers to education and integration into the economy for a number of reasons: “many families [in Toronto] are newcomers, and once they arrive, they discover our minimum wage is too low.”

 

“Newcomers are often excluded from healthcare and forced to pay out of pocket, they also face discrimination, and are limited if they lack the ability to speak English.” Moreover, argued Nudel, racialized youths in Toronto are largely pocketed into certain neighborhoods and “when these youths leave their neighborhoods, they feel stigmatized, causing youths to remain where their opportunities may be limited.” 

 

'Where is the government in all of this?' ask newcomers and low-income individuals. Prior to 1995, Canada had a National Housing Strategy which succeeded in providing housing to over one million citizens. The strategy was effectively dismantled in entirety in 1996 by the Paul Martin government. This coincided with large cuts made by the provincial Mike Harris government to welfare programs. Almost 20 years on, Paradis said that it is “virtually impossible to survive and keep body and mind intact” on current welfare subsidies. 

 

In addition to a lack of available social housing, overcrowding is a constant concern in rental highrises and units known as rooming houses. On the annual National Housing Day rally on November 22, Patricia Moore explained the issues surrounding housing in her Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood: “there are 10-12 people living in a one bedroom apartment and the rent in the community for a one bedroom apartment is $1100 plus hydro.” 

 

The issue is not confined to Patricia’s neighborhood: for over a year, the Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards department has been actively shutting down overcrowded student rooming houses in the area surrounding the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. UTSC spokesperson Don Campbell reported on the university’s solution to overcrowding in Inside Toronto: “students of the fast-growing campus are being educated on how to look for off-campus housing, their rights as tenants, and the legal responsibilities of landlords.”

 

Despite these measures, the fundamental issue for students remains. After tuition is paid—a sum three times what it was 20 years ago—OSAP and a part-time job often cannot cover eight or more months of living expenses. Within these circumstances, there are students who cannot sustain the cost of housing.

 

“There are certainly homeless youth who go to university,” asserted Gaetz. “These are students who have to figure out which buildings are open all night in order to have a place to sleep. I doubt the universities are keeping tabs on the numbers of these students. … It likely remains [a] largely invisible [issue].” 

 

The time is ripe to connect the movements gaining momentum in Toronto. By combining the student movement with the affordable housing movement—under the lens of anti-poverty and anti-oppression—young people can jointly bring their issues to bear. This collaborative action is critical as the margin of difference between university students, young people struggling with mental health issues, and youth facing homelessness has become tenuously slim. 

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