Voices from the margins: understanding street youth in Winnipeg.

Author:Wingert, Susan


This paper aims to inform the development of services and policies to address youth homelessness. This research addressed the following questions: (1) How youth became involved with the street? (2) What their lives were like on the street? (3) What barriers prevented them from leaving the street? And, (4) what facilitated their transition off the street? Using the principles of participatory research, we conducted in-depth one-on-one interviews with twelve young people who had been or were street-involved. We found that youth perceived no acceptable alternative to homelessness after being kicked out of or leaving their homes. A key finding was that youth encountered barriers to leaving the street because they fell between systems meant to support adults and those for children. Youth need a targeted set of services over an extended period of time to facilitate their reintegration into mainstream society.

Keywords: street youth, homeless youth, participatory research, service delivery, public policy


Cet article vise a informer sur le developpement de services et de politiques qui s'attaquent au probleme des jeunes sans-abri. Les questions suivantes y sont abordees : (1) Comment les jeunes se retrouvent-ils dans la rue? (2) Comment est la vie des jeunes de la rue? (3) Quels obstacles nuisent a la reintegration des jeunes dans le systeme? Et (4) Quels facteur contribuent a la reintegration des jeunes dans le systeme? A partir des principes de la recherche participative, nous avons mene des entrevues seul a seul approfondies avec douze jeunes qui vivent ou ont vecu dans la rue. L'une des decouvertes les plus significatives de la recherche est que les jeunes ne voient pas d'alternative acceptable a leur situation de sans-abri apres avoir quitte leur foyer ou en avoir ete chasses. Parmi nos plus grandes decouvertes : le fait que les jeunes parviennent difficilement a quitter la rue parce qu'ils tombent dans les failles d'un systeme concu pour venir en aide aux adultes et aux enfants. Afin de faciliter leur reintegration dans la societe, les jeunes doivent pouvoir compter sur une gamme de services de longue duree axes sur leurs besoins.

Mots cles: jeunes de la rue, jeunes sans abri, rechercher participative, prestation des services, politique publique


While there is a lack of valid and reliable data on the number of homeless youth in Canada, there is evidence to suggest that the number of young people without adequate housing is growing. Novac, Serge, Eberle, and Brown (2002) identified four important trends among homeless youth: 1) the incidence is increasing; 2) an increasing number are chronically homeless; 3) the age at which youth become homeless is decreasing, especially for females; and 4) more identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Developing the network of resources and supports to assist youth in the process of transitioning off the street is a challenge facing service providers and policy makers in most urban centres. Yet, many recent initiatives have served to make the street youth population less visible as opposed to addressing the root causes of homelessness. For example, Winnipeg's squeegee ban, which was passed with the ostensible intention of protecting youth, legally sanctioned one of the more socially acceptable ways in which youth earn money in order to survive without offering any alternative method for meeting basic needs. The Winnipeg by-law allows fines up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to six months if fines are not paid (National Anti Poverty Organization (NAPO) 1999). Other cities have instituted similar legislation. A number of municipal governments, including Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon, have passed anti-panhandling by-laws, which prevents or places restrictions on the act of asking people on the street for money (NAPO 1999). The rationale for panhandling by-laws falls into one of three categories: "the preservation of economic vitality of city areas; the public's right to the peaceful enjoyment of public places; and the eradication of an unhealthy lifestyle" (NAPO 1999: 10). These by-laws coincided with the erosion of welfare benefits, which contributed to rising poverty rates and a greater depth of poverty.

Youth poverty rates indicate that a number of Canadian youth are at-risk of experiencing difficulty in securing adequate, affordable, and suitable housing. Lee (2000) reported that, based on data from the 1996 Census, urban youth aged 15 to 24 had a 30.7% poverty rate, which varied by city between 10.6% in Burlington and 51.0% in Montreal. Winnipeg has a relatively high youth poverty rate at 30.4% (Lee 2000). The low status of youth in the labour market increases the risk of relative or absolute homelessness for youth who are unable or unwilling to continue living in home or in-care. Relative homelessness is the term used to describe housing that is inadequate, unsuitable, or unaffordable while absolute homelessness refers to a complete lack of stable housing, which includes those living in emergency shelters. The development of services and policies to address the issue of youth homelessness requires an understanding of street youth and life on the streets. The heterogeneity of this population precludes the possibility of a "one size fits all" approach. What works for one subgroup may be ineffective for or unacceptable to another. Furthermore, as the participants in this study describe, youth exercise agency in determining which resources and services they will use and which they will not. Even if services are available, they will not be accessed if they are perceived to be a threat to the safety and autonomy of the youth.

The purpose of this research was to explore the experience of being homeless from the perspectives of street-involved youth. The results of our study pertain primarily to younger, chronically homeless youth who represent a growing population. We wanted to know: (1) How youth became involved with the street? (2) What their lives were like on the street? (3) What barriers prevented them from leaving the street? and (4) What facilitated their transition off the street? A key feature of this study was that it was conducted from the perspective of street-experienced youth. This paper will discuss the findings of our research in order to inform initiatives aimed at eradicating youth homelessness.

Literature Review

Defining and Describing the Street Youth Population

Estimating the number of street-involved youth is challenging because there is no universally accepted definition of the term street youth. A common umbrella definition for this population is persons between twelve and twenty-four years of age without shelter or with inadequate or insecure shelter (Peressini and McDonald 2000). Street youth are primarily distinguished from the adult homeless population by their age, which has important consequences for their street experiences. Adolescence is the transitional period between childhood and adulthood where youth acquire the educational credentials needed to secure employment that will provide adequate income for independent living. Youth who leave home before achieving the milestones of adolescence are often unemployable or marginalized into low skill, low paying jobs, which precludes economic self-sufficiency. Due to their age, many homeless youth do not qualify for social assistance benefits or other income support programs. Antecedent family background, age, gender, race, and sexual orientation have been identified in the literature as sociodemographic characteristics that underlie the likelihood of youths becoming homeless and their street experiences.

Street youth have been found to come from a variety of family backgrounds in terms of family structure and social class (Ringwalt, Greene, and Robertson 1998). However, the family environment of most street-involved youth include high levels of dysfunction and/or abuse (CS/RESORS 2001; MacLean, Embry, and Cauce 1999; Ringwalt et al. 1998). Based on a sample of 602 runaway and homeless youth from the Midwestern United States, Yoder, Whitbeck, and Hoyt (2001) found that neglected and sexually abused adolescents were more than three times more likely to run away compared to their non-neglected and non-sexually abused counterparts. Similarly, MacLean et al. (1999) found relatively high rates of physical and sexual abuse among homeless adolescents regardless of whether they had run away, were kicked out, or removed from the home. Hyde (2005) found that while abuse and conflict within the home were central in youths' narratives about the decision to leave home, other factors, such as their own personal or emotional problems or desire to travel, were contributing factors. Not surprisingly, a significant number of street-involved youth have been involved with child welfare systems. In a study of 360 homeless youth in Toronto, Gaetz and O'Grady (2002) found that 43% had lived in foster care. MacLean et al. (1999) found that 17.7% of the 356 homeless youth in their study were removed from their homes by the authorities. More than half of the youth in this category had been sexually abused in their homes.

The likelihood of running away has been found to increase with age (Yoder et al. 2001). The challenges in accessing services and resources while on the street also vary by age. For example, youth in their late teen or early twenties often fall through the gap between systems meant for children and those for adults because they are too old for the former and too young for the later (CS/ RESORS 2001; Novac et al. 2002). On the other hand, youth under the age of fourteen who are not in care are particularly vulnerable on the street because they cannot legally work and do not qualify for social assistance. They may be less aware of supports and services that are available.

In addition to age, gender is another variable that influences...

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