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Confronting Stereotypes Regarding Street-Involved Youth

[This is the transcript of a talk I gave tonight to a group of third year nursing students at the University of Western Ontario, in my hometown.  I sometimes forget how un-obvious this information is to a lot of people, and so I thought I would post it here.  Many thanks to the lovely students and talk organizers who invited me.  It is good to see people who want to get more intimately involved in such things.]
Confronting Stereotypes Regarding Street-involved Youth
When it comes to homelessness and poverty, I am constantly surprised by the amount of the blatant lies and violently discriminatory attitudes that pervade public dialogue on these matters.  Over the last forty years, a great deal of good work has been done – both in the Academy and in the public square – about matters related to systemic violence and discrimination against people with diverse ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences, and mental or physical abilities, but little has been done to overcome the systemic violence and discrimination that continues to impact people who are poor.  Thus, for example, one would be rightfully challenged for saying, “So-and-so is black; therefore, she must be lazy” but few people seem to question the equally false and offensive assertion that “So-and-so is poor; therefore, she must be lazy”. 
It is worth asking ourselves why systemic violence and stereotypes related to economic issues have remained so entrenched in our social imaginaries.  I am inclined to think that this is partly the case because our institutions of higher education are very closely connected to structures that perpetuate a divide between the wealthy and the poor, and that even the more liberating work being done in the public square has mostly benefited wealthy members of diverse ethnicities, wealthy women or transgendered people, wealthy members of the LGBTQ community, and wealthy people who are differently-abled.  Thus, while a person may become sensitized to his or her own experience of oppression and injustice, that person may still remain blind to other structures of violence, in which he or she unwittingly participates.  So, for example, a wealthy white woman may be appropriately upset when she is overlooked for a management position based upon her gender, but she may be completely unaware of the great difference between her life experiences and that of a poor aboriginal woman.  Consequently, while fighting for the rights of women more generally, she may end up adopting attitudes about poor members of First Nations communities that are violent and oppressive.  Similarly, one could be a middle-class health care student, committed to contributing to the health and well-being of others, yet one may also violent and death-dealing attitudes about some members of our society – notably, in this instance, people who are poor.
Therefore, in the few minutes that I have tonight, I would like confront some of the stereotypes that function as self-evident truths within public dialogue on the subject of street-involved young people.  The common perception appears to be that ‘street kids’ are rebellious teens who like doing drugs more than they like living at home.  They tend to be seen as people who would rather be out partying and causing a ruckus rather than learning how to be responsible members of society.  As a corollary of this, the parents of these ‘hooligans’ tend to be viewed as loving and worried adults who ‘just don’t know what to do anymore’ and who are being victimized by their bullying, drug-addicted children.
Of course, that this sort of picture is the one that tends to dominate public discourse should not surprise us.  Parents, as the adults in the situation, tend to have the power, resources and life-skills to manipulate the ways in which others understand what occurs when a youth becomes homeless. Teens, particularly those who have been abused – a point I will develop in a moment – tend not to have the same power, resources, and life-skills and so they become vulnerable to having others impose a particular narrative upon them.  Thus, parents will – like most of us – find ways to justify themselves and their actions (kicking out a child and so on), while simultaneously blaming their child and attempting to control how others view that child.  Add to this the fact that most of us are scared of people simply for looking poor – wearing torn clothing, having dirty hair, sporting work-boots, and so on – and it becomes pretty easy for us to be convinced of the message we receive from the parents.  Not only do we tend to think that ‘scary = bad’ but we then distance ourselves from street-involved teens and never get the opportunity to hear their side of the story.  Of course, this fear is simply one of the manifestations of the economic stereotypes I mentioned, and it demonstrates how these stereotypes are self-perpetuating.  When ‘poor = scary = bad = avoid like the plague!’ then we never get the opportunity to learn about what is actually going on.
Because the fact is that the stories told by street-involved teens, along with the information gathered by social services, suggests a very different picture – and one that directly contradicts common perceptions on this matter.  For example, a study in which I participated with street-involved teens in Toronto, found that over 75% of these teens identified domestic violence as the primary cause of their homelessness.  This fits with other statistics taken at the national level which show that over 70% of homeless youth identify physical or sexual abuse as the cause of their homelessness.  So, here is the truth: the vast majority of teens on the street are there because they were being verbally, physically, and/or sexually abused in their homes by their parents.
Of course, not everybody who is abused ends up being homeless, but this is often because there are other resources or people to whom some can turn when being abused – perhaps another family member, perhaps another caring adult, perhaps a friend’s family, and so on.  However, for those who are being abused and who do not know anybody who might help, the street becomes a valid option.  For example, I am a friend of a young woman whose father used to sell her to his friends for beer money.  If you had to choose between that and a life on the street what would you choose?  Sadly, her story is not uncommon.  I’ve seen the scars from the cigarettes a mother would put out on her daughter’s legs.  I’ve seen the teeth that were missing in the mouth of a son whose father beat him with a hammer.  And on and on it goes.
Of course, it is after this experience of violence that drug addiction and substance misuse often enter into the picture.  Certainly, as with most teens, some recreational drug use may have been a part of their prior life, but addiction and serious misuse only tend to arrive after a young person has moved onto the streets.  This is for good reasons: trying to cope with the fall-out of previous physical and sexual trauma is hard enough, but trying to cope with these things while facing all the challenges of street-life is extremely challenging.  Spending a night on the street can be scary – especially when you are new to the streets – and so drugs like crack and crystal meth become appealing because they give a person the energy they need to stay awake and a much needed sense of self-confidence and courage.  Similarly, dealing with the nightmares and flashbacks of traumas is exhausting and drugs like heroin and other opiates can offer a much-sought-after rest and sense of numbness or peace. 
Unfortunately, what begins as a coping mechanism often turns destructive and, although drug use may not have led these teens onto the street, it does trap many teens there.  That said, we need to remember that the problem here is not the drug use, but the traumas that made drug use turn into addiction and a harmful form of misuse.  The solution, then, is not to criminalize youth who use drugs, or stigmatize street-involved teens; rather, the solution is to begin to address those underlying traumas by developing loving personal relationships and supportive social structures, while also doing much more to address the massive amount of domestic and family-based violence that occurs in our society.  Furthermore, rather than simply focusing on this-or-that abusive parent as the problem, we need to look at the ways in which things like domestic abuse are related to broader social structures and matters of wealth, poverty, colonization, and privilege.   It is not surprising that a Canadian study found that 63% of street-involved youth identified as coming from a family that struggled to maintain housing.
So, the most important thing to remember is that violence is the greatest cause of homelessness amongst youth.  Three other significant causes should also be mentioned.  The first is the sexuality of youth.  Again, in the survey done in Toronto, 40% of the youth interviewed identified their sexual orientation as a primary cause of their homelessness, and this figure is pretty close to other national studies done in the US and the UK.  A good many of these people were simply kicked-out when they ‘came out’ to their parents.  Others were beaten and abused because of their sexual orientation (hence the overlap with the statistic regarding violence) and then chose to leave.  Again, when the choice is the streets or your father kicking you down the stairs and calling you a faggot, what would you choose? 
The second cause that should be mentioned cuts to funding for programs for people with mental health concerns.  This had a much greater and much more devastating impact upon adult populations, but it continues to impact street-involved teens because it adds a further barrier to services and a further challenge to be overcome when trying to exit street life.  Thus, a person in psychosis or experiencing the symptoms of some sort of chemical imbalance will have a more difficult time transitioning from being street-involved to living a different kind of lifestyle.  This is only further exacerbated when we recall the violence experienced by street involved teens, and studies that suggest a connection between childhood violence and trauma and certain mental disorders (like dissociative identity disorder or borderline personality disorder).
Finally, one should also mention the foster care system and the removal of children from their families, from their place of heritage, and from their languages and cultures.  One Canadian study shows that 40-47% of homeless people in general identified as having been in foster care or a group home, but another study focused solely on youth places that number as high as 68%.  Of course, when one looks at the disproportionate number of aboriginal youth now placed in care – not to mention the disproportionate number of aboriginal people experiencing homelessness –one can’t help but wonder if this shift in numbers simply reflects the ways in which foster care has replaced residential schooling.  After all, what we often see in foster care (despite the good things that can happen there) is the traumatic separation of families, coupled with – once again – quite a lot of violence and lack of accountability.
So, enough of the stats.  I have mentioned four major items that contribute to youth homelessness.  These are: (1) violence in the home; (2) ongoing prejudices against any form of sexuality that is not hetero; (3) inadequate supports for people with mental health problems;  and (4) the violence that appears to be ingrained in our foster care system.  All of this paints a very different picture than the one offered to us in popular opinions about irresponsible teens who like to party, get high, and rebel against their parents.
By way of conclusion, I will share some of my own story with you.  My story is unexceptional – it’s a pretty average sort of story, and I’m a pretty average sort of person, and that’s the point.  The experience of homelessness as a teen is something that can happen to anybody.  If a few things had gone down differently in each of your own lives, you could also have ended up on the street.
My story is that I grew up in a home with a father who was mentally unstable, emotionally manipulative, and sometimes physically abusive.  I inherited a pretty sensitive disposition from my mother and so this was fairly traumatic for me and, when I recall my childhood years, I mostly remember being afraid and anxious.  Because of this, and because of my conservative Christian upbringing, I tried hard to be a ‘good kid’.  I was an honour student, I stayed out of trouble, I got my first job when I was thirteen, and my social life mostly consisted of hanging-out with the youth group at my church.  The sort of thing that got me knocked around was if a church event ended up going later than planned.  Suffice to say, I wasn’t a particularly rebellious young person!
However, as I got into the middle years of high school, I found that I was getting bored in class and I learned that I could maintain high grades without attending most classes.  So, I began skipping a lot of classes and, like any respectable high-school student, I learned to do an excellent imitation of my parents’ signatures on the notes I would forge.  At this time, I also started standing up to my father’s abuse and manipulation more than he liked and so our relationship was quite strained.  Consequently, the shit hit the fan when I eventually got busted for all the classes I skipped.  I went home from school that day, and my father sat me down and said: “You have one hour to get your things and leave.  Anything you leave behind will be thrown out.”  When I asked if he wanted me to phone or anything, he replied: “No, just get out of my life.”  An hour later I was walking down the street with a couple of garbage bags and a backpack.  I did some couch-surfing but mostly ended up living with a close friend of mine and his mom.  Of course, they had their own issues and he would sometimes get kicked-out and on those nights, I felt uncomfortable staying at his place.  Instead, a few of us would get together and just walk the streets all night, or try to crash on the jungle-gym at a suburban park.
As for drug use, I think that I had recreationally used alcohol on one occasion prior to being kicked-out, and I think I used marijuana once before as well – this level of use, I should note, is well below the recreational drug and alcohol use practiced by non-street-involved teens.  So, this was how a pretty timid, bookish church-kid (who wanted to be a missionary for Jesus), ended up as a street-involved youth.  That’s a pretty far-cry from the stereotypical things we hear about street kids.  But really, in my own life, that’s what I’ve seen.  Are street-involved people any different than anybody else?  No.  Everybody has their issues and their areas of brokenness, and everybody has something breathtakingly beautiful about them.  This is just as true of a street kid as it is of the people gathered here tonight and I hope that we can remember that, not only in the ways we treat one another, but also in the ways we interact with those who know a lot more about poverty, violence, and loneliness than a good many of us.  Not only that, but perhaps we can also move beyond isolating and blaming individuals in order to engage in more systemic and structural analyses in order to ensure that the next generation of kids will not have it just as bad as the previous generation and, just as importantly, in order to ensure that we are not contributing to the abuse and oppression of others, despite our best intentions.
Thank you for listening.  I enjoy a reciprocal exchange more than just talking at people, so I’ll stick around afterwards if anybody has any questions or comments for me.

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  1. Thanks Dan, your analysis here rings pretty true to my experience of getting to know and working with young homeless people in Sydney over the last decade. I think the rise of mental health related illnesses (diagnosed and otherwise) has been the most alarming change I have observed in that time. Less foster care overall in Aust than where you are, so that seemed a little different from my experience.
    Another thing that took me by surprise – at least the first couple of times it happened. Conducting a funeral for a young person/adult who had died of an overdose (usually heroin) , a family member (usually estranged) would come up quietly after the service and thank me / our community for ‘being there for them’. I always found it an awkward moment… a funeral is not the time to get on a ‘high horse’ and give the kind of analysis you’ve offered here. But often found my head swirling with the kinds of things you describe here.
    So thanks. My only nights sleeping rough have been entirely voluntary… a poor symbol practiced once or twice a year of solidarity with those with lived & worked, giving me a deeper respect for those who live on our city streets.
    I think that shines through in what you have written as well.

  2. Hi Dan,
    I don’t know if you remember me, it has been at least 3-4 years since I’ve been a homeless youth myself(in Vancouver). If you do remember me you may recall my propensity to getting kicked out, which often led to some depressing sleeps under Burrard bridge.
    I actually wanted to know what your opinion was on rules setup, like zero-tolerance, to send street-youth back onto the streets? How much do you think these rules further stigmatize the youth?(I’m sure you have written something before that would easily answer my question but I’m having trouble locating it)
    I also like to add(unfortunately) that I was shocked when I arrived back home to see how similar ‘regular’ youth were to the so-called ‘deviant’ street youth.
    -Yea as you can probably tell I’m not a very good writer(which hopefully university will fix). So just wanted to say that I enjoy reading what you have to say. Keep it up 😛

    • Shaun!
      First of all, it is fantastic hearing from you! I hope all is well. I was just reminiscing with a co-worker the other day about playing ‘would you rather…’ with you at the front-desk. Man, I laughed my ass off doing that.
      The brief answer to your question, is that I personally disagree with things like zero-tolerance or doing things that end up sending people back onto the street. And, yes, I do think that such actions reflect and further entrench the stigmatization of street-involved youth. I haven’t blogged about this too much, but I wrote something along those lines here:
      I also recommend the book “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex” as it does a fine job of demonstrating how social services often (and accidently) end up contributing to the problem, rather than contributing to the solution.
      PS — What you are going to study in University?

      • Hey Dan,
        Whoops I thought I would get an e-mail if you responded haha so I didn’t bother checking the replies until today. Oh man you wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve tried to start the ‘would you rather..’ game with. It never seems to catch on though, everyone’s to mature for that game I guess :P.
        Thank you for the book reference I’ll definately have to check it out.
        Well honestly my original plan was to major in either psychology or sciences to work my way into med school to become a psychiatrist but that has been derailed by a sociology class. It’s hard to explain but through an entry-level sociology class my eyes have been smacked open to the amounts of inequality around me(even though I was homeless myself!). Now I’m kind of lost. I feel like I owe it to myself to find a way to fight against this inequality but I don’t know how. I feel like I’m an idealist without any kind of ideal to back that claim up. So the plan for me is to find my ideal and stick with it by taking a wide variety of classes – on the way to a Sociology major… which I’m not even quite sure what I could do with that. Sorry for rambling but that’s what being asked about University does to me.
        PS: Congratulations on having a child! I’m a bit late on the congrats but I’ve been out of touch 😛

  3. Nice post Dan, it’s well-written. You are spot-on when talking about the focus should be the ‘under-lying traumas’… What do you mean when you write the solution is to develop ‘loving personal relationships and supportive social structures’? I love it and that’s my solution too, but what does that look like to you in regard to the client/worker relationship?


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