A join study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto has revealed that the most common reason behind immigrant children ending up homeless is the intergenerational conflict with their parents over cultural differences, while another major reason was found to be the family’s disapproval of the youth’s sexual orientation.
The study shows that there are about 65,000 homeless youth in Canada, accounting for a third of the total homeless population in the country. Out of these, one-fourth were born outside Canada.
“The main precipitant of their homelessness is the clashes between the new culture people are coming to, which is freer and easier, and the old, traditional life their parents had. It is more than the adolescent tension between parents wanting kids to live the lives they had and the new generation wanting to push forward. That tension is magnified in newcomer families,” says Dr. Kwame McKenzie of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The study titled ‘Hidden in Our Midst: Homeless Newcomer Youth in Toronto’ lists age, race, sexual orientation and gender as some of the factors that contribute to a young person becoming homeless, adding “For newcomer youth, however, it is the juncture of these factors, in addition to the presence of language and cultural barriers, lack of status, personal ties and history in Canada that uniquely situate them amongst the most vulnerable of homeless youth.”
According to the study, a homeless person is defined as one who is living outside, or in a shelter or transitional housing, or at a friend’s house or “couch-surfing”. Twenty-seven-year-old Cheyanne Ratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant youth who began couch surfing when she was twelve, says, “My mother had multiple jobs to support the two of us. I grew up in the Canadian culture and there was a difference between cultures. My mom did not approve of the choices I made. I was well adjusted, and I didn’t understand why mom could not.”
Ratnam later lived at Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and today has a Masters degree in social work.
For the study, 74 homeless immigrant youth in Toronto were interviewed, 45% of which were women and 55% men. One fifth of them identified themselves as homosexual, while17% said they were ‘questioning’ or preferred not to disclose their sexual orientation to researchers.
Among those interviewed, 36% came from the Caribbean, 27% from Africa, 10% from the Middle East and 9% from South America. The average duration of homelessness was 30 months and most of them became homeless when they were 17 years old. More than 50% of those interviewed were permanent residents in Canada, 37% were citizens of Canada, 27% were in the process of seeking asylum and 7% were on student or tourist visas.
One in three of the young people had come to Canada on their own, but about 40% of them had arrived with their parents. About 45% of the youth had experienced physical abuse, and one-third reported having suffered sexual abuse. More than one-fourth also said that they had experienced trauma through political unrest or wars in their native countries.
According to the report, “Family conflict and income insecurity were the main factors for why newcomer youth first entered a situation of homelessness. Family breakdown and instability, such as separation, blended families, and changing cities are significant contributors to youth homelessness.”
The study highlights the mismatch between the requirements of homeless youth and the services accessible to them. A youth-support agency in Toronto called the Youth Link has reached out to 6,049 youth in the region during the past year through a range of programs like women’s residence and co-op housing. According to Janice Hayes of Youth Link, different community sectors like health centres, ethnocultural-specific groups, and places of worship can all contribute by providing support to the homeless youth.
Hardships and lack of a support network resulted in about 45% of the homeless youth studied in the report to identify “religion or God” as their main source of support, though friends (28%) and partners (24%) also provided support to some.
“We deal with so many kids and this (newcomer) group often gets lost. There is always the big trust factor. Building that is huge and expensive,” says Hayes.
The study concludes with several recommendations to counter the problem of homelessness in Toronto. Some of the recommended courses of action include adopting an intensive case-management system to settle homeless youth, expanding strong peer support networks to guide the youth, and taking steps to increase intergenerational family support.