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December 23, 2013

Youth Homelessness a Growing Concern

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After three months of study, Cochrane now has some data concerning youth homelessness in town, which appears to be on the rise.

The Boys & Girls Club, in addition to concerned parties like FCSS, the Community Learning Centre and the local high schools, met with Jeff Dyer of Auxano Consulting on Dec. 10 to hear the details of the needs assessment plan they completed with funding from the Alberta Rural Development Network.

With the data now in hand, stakeholders are aiming to create a fully fleshed out plan by the time they have a committee struck by the end of January to tackle youth homelessness in Cochrane.

“After what we’ve heard we don’t have a choice,” said Din Ladak, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. “A community issue has been raised big time.”

“Largely this is under the radar,” Dyer told stakeholders, noting some of the difficulties in gathering the necessary data. “If you ask the average citizen they won’t know this is a problem.”

This was reflected in a meeting with local politicians at the municipal and federal levels when the study was initially proposed and met with some skepticism, in part due to the image of Cochrane being a rural community and homelessness being a city problem.

But it isn’t. Based on data gathered from Bow Valley High School (researchers could not connect staff with from Cochrane High School), staff noticed 37 students (primarily 16 or 17-year-olds) had been homeless at some point.

Rather than being seen pushing shopping carts and begging on the streets, youth homelessness is generally defined as “an unaccompanied person age 24 and under lacking a permanent night time residence. They can be living on the street, in shelters, couch surfing, in unsafe and insecure housing, and living in abusive situations. They may also be about to be discharged without the security of a regular residence from a care, correction, health, or any other facility.”

This means that youth homelessness can include sleeping outside under bridges or derelict buildings (called rough sleeping), spending the night with friends or extended family because they cannot go home (couch surfing) or entering into an exploitative relationship for a place to stay, which can be anything from a sibling taking all the youth’s earnings to providing sex to strangers.

The latter example is very common among vulnerable females who often do not appear in homelessness statistics because they are not seen at shelters or on the streets as a result of such arrangements.

Apart from the hidden homelessness, where youth are staying with people who are not their parents or legal guardians, there is also relative homelessness that sees youth either in substandard living conditions or at risk of losing their residence and absolute homelessness, which is how homelessness is often understood where one will  be on the streets or in shelters.

Of the 37 homeless youth seen in Bow Valley, nearly all of them kept going to school with half being girls. Five of the youth were 15 years old or younger.

All of the students had problems with their families, though not always because they were rebellious or difficult.

“Youth don’t choose to be homeless,” Dyer said, with other studies showing 70 per cent of those on the streets coming from abusive families, be it physical, verbal or sexual in nature. Those that leave home for frivolous reasons will return home in short order and avoid living on the streets in the future.

Click here to read the full article by David Feil in the Cochrane Times.

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