Canada is lagging behind Australia, the United States and Great Britain in solving youth homelessness, a new comprehensive street youth report says.
Based on interviews with 689 street youth in Calgary, Toronto and St. John's, the report calls for permanent housing and education support to replace Canada's emphasis on short-term shelter.
The study was released in Toronto Thursday, backed by the star-power of British media mogul Richard Branson, who called on Canada to set an ambitious goal of eliminating youth homelessness in 12 months.
"I think the radical solution is simple for governments to make it illegal for local governments to allow people to be on the street," Mr. Branson said.
Speaking to a crowd at rain-soaked Dundas Square, he was joined by Canadian actor Cory Monteith, who plays Finn Hudson of the hit TV show Glee and was, Mr. Branson quipped, the true star attraction of the Toronto event.
"In a country like this, we shouldn't be having that kind of problem," the actor said.
Both men sported red toques as part of the concurrent launch of the annual toque fundraising campaign by Raising the Roof, which produced the study with support from the Ontario government.
The report, titled Youth Homelessness in Canada: The Road to Solutions, is the culmination of three years of research and interviews. It identifies three essential service categories for Canada's 65,000 homeless youth: prevention, emergency response, and transitions from homelessness.
"Today, essentially, is a call to action," Raising the Roof president Sean Gadon said. "What we're talking about is change and the need for a national action plan."
Emily, a young mother and 22-year-old St. John's woman who spent two months on the streets, was among the speakers.
"It also shows the importance of outreach and support groups in the community," she said of the report, to a crowd of hoods and umbrellas under the wet Toronto conditions.
"I feel the weather today was definitely enlightening to everybody [of the problems homeless youth face]"
The report, supported with a $100,000 grant from Ontario's trillium foundation, makes nine recommendations, among them developing a national housing strategy with a continuum of support levels, and developing a policy approved by all three levels of government specifically tackling youth homelessness.
The report says that while Australia, the United States, and Great Britain have developed strategies for youth homelessness, Canada hasn't conducted a clear assessment of the challenges or developed a nation-wide plan.
"We have been working hard to ensure that every person in the young person - every young person - is given the opportunity to reach their potential," said Laurel Broten, Ontario's Minister of Children and Youth Services. "We know that there's a lot more work to do."
Mr. Branson arrived in Toronto at 2 a.m. Thursday morning and told the crowd about seeing the homeless sleeping on subway grates on his drive into town. The event was held in Dundas Square, where he launched Virgin's operations four years ago by arriving in a superhero costume via a zipline. (This time, he just crossed the street from a side door of the nearby Hard Rock Cafe).
"Unbelievable, that people are still sleeping on the street," he told the crowd. "We've got to do something about it. We can't be civilized people and have people sleeping and living on the streets.
"Canada is a wealthy country. If you just take the tar sands of Canada, [it's]enormous wealth. If just a bit of that wealth could be put into giving people some dignity... that would be good."
Asked about the appearance of Mr. Branson and Mr. Monteith, Ms. Broten smiled. "A little star power doesn't hurt."
It defines youth as those between the ages of 16 and 29, and notes demographic differences between the three cities studied - in St. John's, more than a third of the youth are under 18, double the rate of Toronto and Calgary, in which the largest age groups are instead 19-21 and 22-24, respectively.
The report focused more on St. John's respondents (516), than those from Calgary (105) and Toronto (68).
Of the youth interviewed, 63 per cent grew up in a family that couldn't maintain housing. Half identified stable housing as a barrier to escaping street life. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) came from foster care or group homes, and 43 per cent were involved with Child Protection Services at one point. About one-quarter had been sexually abused. Twenty-one per cent had children themselves or were pregnant.
It also notes that "there are many misconceptions about street-involved youth." While earlier studies found that a third of street youth have mental health concerns, only 5 per cent of Toronto street youth interviewed and 1 per cent of those in St. John's self-identified as struggling with mental illness.
Of the street youth interviewed, 27 per cent had jobs.
The report frames a permanent solution as a fiscally prudent strategy - saying it costs more than $30,000 to keep a child in a shelter for one year, and $100,000 per year to keep then in prison.
Among the report's nine recommendations are: secure and long-term program funding; expansion of one-stop, barrier-free programs for youth; additional educational opportunities; increased job training; mentorship; and the engagement of the private sector.
In its 13th year, Raising the Roof's toque program sells the iconic red hats, with proceeds going to programs for homeless youth. With Mr. Branson's Virgin Group a lead partner, they're available in any Virgin store. Mr. Branson joked that he had to write "took" in his remarks to not do a disservice to the Canadian term. He later tossed Mr. Monteith's toque to a crowd of screaming young women.
"So, as the ambassador of the toque, I'm thrilled to launch the limited-edition toque," the actor and Calgary native told the crowd. "This is such a great initiative."