The Stories we tell Ourselves about Youth Homelessness

The other morning at the end of a swim practice I was chatting with some fellow swimmers about a new grant we had received to explore policy and poverty. An older gentleman I hadn’t talked with before was sitting nearby and overheard our conversation. He piped up:

“My wife and I used to run drop-in for homeless youth on weekends. Just before Christmas I was surprised when no one showed up. We went out to the streets and no one was there either. They had all gone home for Christmas. Makes you wonder…”

The clear allusion being made was that street-involved youth aren’t in fact homeless, but rather choose not to be at home. I highlighted to him research that shows that regardless of where choice to exit home lies (ie. kicked out or fleeing), over 70% of homeless youth identify abuse in the family home as the cause of their homelessness.

His response: “Is the abuse real or imagined? I worked in social services for over 40 years.”

It struck me that this anecdote was a story that he had at the tip of his tongue, and was happy to intrude on a stranger’s conversation to share. It obviously meant a lot to him to have this narrative that homeless youth are just run-aways, ne’er-do-wells, and not so much in need of housing as we might presume. I suspect that we weren’t the first with whom he had shared this anecdote, and it wasn’t the first time he used his “expertise” from in the sector to add clout to the premise.

In a broader sense, this narrative of homeless youth as “bad kids” is a popular and a common one. It serves to relieve a sense of guilt we feel when youth, who seem more vulnerable (innocent? fragile?), are part of the experience of homelessness. This story I’m sure gets perpetuated in middle-class households across our communities. Yet, this narrative of “street punks” goes directly against research that shows that most are grappling with a difficult home life, and few, for example, grapple with substance use prior to their experience of homelessness. Of course youth who have left an abusive home environment might choose to go home for Christmas. Or maybe because it was Chritsmas, a lot of other places had activities that youth were choosing to go to instead.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to hang out with this asshole anymore on weekends.

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