At age 12, Cheyanne Ratnam began couch-surfing to keep herself housed. By 14, she was a ward of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. After she grew out of care, the young immigrant still faced the prospect of becoming homeless.
“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,” said Ratnam, now 27.
She describes a family life filled with emotional conflicts.
“In her eyes, I was rebellious. And I just wanted to run away from home and get away.”
According to a groundbreaking Toronto study to be released Tuesday, intergenerational conflict over cultural differences is the most common reason immigrant youth end up homeless — followed by family disapproval of the young person’s sexual orientation.
“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,” said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which conducted the joint study with CAS Toronto.
“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.”
One-third of Canada’s 65,000 homeless population are youths, and of those, nearly one-quarter were born outside Canada. The study’s definition of homelessness include those staying outside, staying in a shelter or transitional housing, having no fixed address, “couch-surfing” or staying at a friend’s or family’s home.
“Age, gender, race and sexual orientation are among the multitude of factors that shape a young person’s experience of and pathway into homelessness,” says the report, Hidden in Our Midst: Homeless Newcomer Youth in Toronto.
“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.”
Through partnerships with community groups, researchers interviewed 74 homeless immigrant youth in Toronto — 45 per cent women, 55 per cent men — and surveyed service providers to get a better picture of their needs and support available.
Among the sample of participants, 36 per cent of the youth were from the Caribbean, followed by Africa (27 per cent), the Middle East (10 per cent) and South America (9 per cent).
More than half were permanent residents, with 37 per cent being Canadian citizens, 27 per cent somewhere in the asylum process and 7 per cent here on visitor or student visas. Many started becoming homeless at age 17, and the average length of homelessness was 30 months.
More than a quarter of the youth reported previous experience of trauma, such as war and political unrest in their country of origin, while 45 per cent said they had suffered physical abuse and one-third sexual abuse.
One in five also self-identified as queer and a further 17 per cent indicated they were “questioning” or preferred to not disclose their sexual orientation.
Although 40 per cent of the youth arrived to Canada with their parents, one in three came here alone.
The study identified separation from parents due to immigration as a unique challenge newcomer youth faced. Nearly a quarter reported having been involved with the Children’s Aid Society, and 9 per cent had been in its direct care since arriving in Canada.
“Family conflict and income insecurity were the main factors for why newcomer youth first entered a situation of homelessness,” the report says. “Family breakdown and instability, such as separation, blended families, and changing cities are significant contributors to youth homelessness.”
Carline Casimir, 22, has lived at the edge of homelessness since she came here alone from St. Lucia in June 2012. She only knew of a cousin in Toronto and stayed at her one-bedroom apartment for a week before moving into a women’s shelter.
Like more than a quarter of the newcomer youth interviewed by researchers, Casimir is a parent. Being a single mom and visible minority on social assistance, she said she often faces discrimination from landlords and employers, making life that much more difficult.
“They judge you on your circumstances. Because of that prejudice, no one would give you an apartment, a job or a chance for anything,” said Casimir, who shares an apartment with her 2-year-old daughter and a friend from her church.
Casimir spends 70 per cent of her income on housing and relies on the food bank and support from members of her church for groceries and shelter. “It’s really trying at times,” she said.
Newcomer youth participating in the study identified “religion or God” as their main source of support (45 per cent), followed by friends (28 per cent) and romantic partners (24 per cent).
Ann Fitzpatrick of CAS Toronto said the study finds a mismatch between the needs of homeless newcomer youth and currently available services.
“For the youth, there are the income security piece, the employment piece and affordable housing piece to the problem,” said Fitzpatrick, the society’s community development and prevention program supervisor.
“Many of the services operate in silos. We need to better coordinate, integrate these services and make them more youth-oriented.”
Janice Hayes, executive director of Youth Link, a youth support agency in Toronto, said various community sectors — from ethnocultural-specific groups to family services, health centres and places of worship — can all play a role in providing a continuum of supports to these youth.
“We deal with so many kids and this (newcomer) group often gets lost,” said Hayes, whose agency supported 6,049 youth in the city last year through a variety of programs, including co-op housing and a women’s residence. “There is always the big trust factor. Building that is huge and expensive.”
To prevent newcomer youth from becoming homeless, the report recommends developing peer support networks to guide youth to help, an intensive case-management approach in their settlement process, and boosting intergenerational family support, particularly for families that may have been separated for some time.
To assist young people who are currently homeless, the study calls for a one-stop-shopping approach: a way that would allow youth in need to access a spectrum of services under one roof.
Homeless immigrant youth Nearly 2 out of 3 have origins in Africa or the Caribbean. Over 1 in 3 identified as LGBTQ. Over 25% identified as being a parent. Over 50% report some level of religious or faith identity. Family conflict was cited by two out of three as the main reason for becoming homeless. Over 2 out of 3 indicated they would feel most comfortable seeking help from a family doctor or walk-in clinic.
Source: Hidden in Our Midst: Homeless Newcomer Youth in Toronto