What are the rights of youth facing homelessness?

Canada Without Poverty and Away Home Ottawa have developed an ongoing program series focusing on youth homelessness and the right to housing. This month, we’re featuring a series of guest blogs from our partners and youth participants to share their perspectives on the right to housing for young people in Canada.

My name is Kesha and I am part of the youth Liaison Team for Away Home Ottawa.

A Way Home is a national movement, bringing together coalition partners dedicated to preventing and ending youth homelessness in Canada. A Way Home is making real changes in Canada for youth by connecting with communities and more importantly connecting with youth. This is where I come in. As a youth liaison, I’ve experienced homelessness and I’m trying my best to reflect the common struggles that 20% of the homeless population in Canada experience.

I understand the stigma of youth homelessness. The common assumption is that youth experience homelessness because of substance abuse problems, a dysfunctional family, or at times just being part of “the wrong crowd.” But homelessness isn’t one story. It doesn’t fit one dialogue and it isn’t one thing. Youth homelessness varies and changes all the time.  

For instance, I’m a woman of colour. I was born in a single mother home, came to Canada as a refugee, and have experienced homelessness multiple times in my life. However, I feel my family isn’t dysfunctional, I’ve never dealt with substance abuse, and like most 19-year-old girls, I’m just figuring out this thing called “adulthood.” Most of my experience with homelessness is based on circumstance and immigration. However, there’s always a need to explain my story. Why do I need to “open the book of my life” to remove the stigma of homelessness?

A Way Home partnered with Canada Without Poverty and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation at a workshop in early January to talk with youth about their housing rights and answer the questions we all should be asking, but don’t. Questions such as: how do I recognize when a landlord is being prejudiced towards me? What are the proper steps when dealing with a difficult relationship with my landlord? What are my rights as a tenant and what are my landlord’s rights?

We were also encouraged to express our frustration with housing and share the changes we believe need to happen. And wow, that was a conversation!  With 75.9% of homeless youth experiencing homelessness multiple times, it isn’t uncommon to hear the same story. For instance, we heard from a lot of youth about landlords posting ‘female-only’ or ‘adult-only’ ads or not allowing smoking or pets. One participant even saw an ad that said ‘no big dogs’.

We also heard a lot about discrimination based on previous criminal records: “There’s nothing set up for people when they get out of jail. They wonder why jail is a revolving door. It’s three meals and a warm cell. There’s no structure when you get out.”

It was obvious that discrimination isn’t news for homeless youth, but it seems more challenging with housing: “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Someone can look like they don’t have money but always pay their bills and rent on time.”

The challenges and issues varied, but the lack of communication between landlords and tenants is a common theme. “Landlords tell me they will get back to me but they never do. I tell myself, ‘don’t waste your breath’. Personally, I am used to it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings anymore,” another participant said.

I hope that having more conversations such as these help progress the development of a more inclusive environment when dealing with youth homelessness. Housing is a fundamental human right and homeless youth should have the same chances as everyone else. Youth aren’t able to succeed without the basics such as shelter, food and other protections. Housing should never been seen as a luxury, but a necessity in any youth’s development.

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