Homelessness is just one aspect of the gross inequality that exists in many western countries. As Wilson & Pickett noted in their book The Spirit Level, ‘the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us’ ; homelessness can be an all too visible manifestation of such inequality.
Inequality cuts all ways when it comes to homelessness. It is simply not the case that many of us are two pay cheques away from homelessness. Glen Bramley and Suzanne Fitzpatrick carried out a systematic analysis of the social distribution of homelessness in the UK. They conclude that:
‘The fact of the matter is that, for some systematically disadvantaged groups, the probability of homelessness is so very high that it comes close to constituting a ‘norm’. Conversely, for other sections of the population, the probability of falling into homelessness is slight in the extreme because they are cushioned by many protective factors’.
‘The two pay-cheques statement has to be called out for the nonsense it is, so that we can move on to design the sort of effective, long-term preventative interventions in homelessness that recognise its predictable yet far from inevitable nature.’
When it comes to youth homelessness in California and Canada, the picture is clear. Many young people are experiencing homelessness, but some groups of young people are experiencing it at a far higher rate than others. In all the cities I have visited, LGBTQ2S youngsters are very over-represented – up to 40% of all the young people who are homeless. Across Canada, the average proportion of young people experiencing homelessness who identify as LGBTQ2S is just under 30%.
And in Canada, the over-representation of indigenous youth amongst the homelessness population is shocking. 30% of young people living in shelters across the country identify as indigenous, while the proportion of indigenous people amongst the population is around 5%. 65% of the young people experiencing homelessness in Manitoba are indigenous.
And there is a constant flow into homelessness from the care system in both California and Canada. The team at Covenant House California told me that half of the 3,000 youngsters who ‘age out’ of the care system in Los Angeles each year almost immediately end up as homeless.
And of course, intersectionality is at play; almost 90% of the children in care in Manitoba are indigenous and a proportion of those will identify as LGBTQ2S.
So it seems that homelessness certainly does appear to come close to constituting a ‘norm’ for some groups of young people in California and Canada. Against this very negative picture, I have seen some really positive developments; organisations and alliances that have sought to develop a better understanding of the experiences of young people experiencing homelessness and really listening to what they need. Two specific examples I would like to highlight here are:
- the LGBTQ2S Toolkit Making it Better Now for LGBTQ2S Youth Experiencing Homelessness which aims to help staff and organisations become better allies of LGBTQ2S youth
- a definition of indigenous homelessness in Canada launched last week at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference. As applicable to young people experiencing homelessness as to any other age group, it identifies twelve dimensions of homelessness, including spiritual disconnection and cultural disintegration and loss. It bears reading slowly and thinking about … a lot.
We have a long way to go to ensure that homelessness is not only not close to the norm for some young people, but is not a feature of their lives at all. We need to be relentless in pursuing this so that it becomes reality, not an aspiration.