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How the COVID-19 Pandemic has Affected Youth Homelessness

Introduction to Youth Homelessness

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the negative inequalities that youth across Canada face when experiencing homelessness. The pandemic has made matters worse by limiting access to appropriate services and supports available to youth to reach out for help. The pandemic has resulted in many negative outcomes for youth, ranging from job losses and rent evictions to isolation and depression.

Youth and service providers across the country are sounding the alarm on the negative socioeconomic effects of the pandemic on youth homelessness. Although the pandemic has brought negative consequences for those in dire need of support or services, it has also displayed the living conditions and daily life of youth when experiencing homelessness. Youth homelessness awareness has increased throughout the duration of the pandemic and, as a result, has allowed more stories of youth homelessness to circulate throughout society, thus allowing for more discussion on solutions to ending and preventing youth homelessness.

Pandemic Impacts on Mental Health and Substance Use

Image courtesy of CTV News Vancouver.

Service providers in various roles across the country ranging from management to front-line youth workers have helped collect data for youth survey responses to youth homelessness and the pandemic’s effect on their well-being. Service providers across the country have reported a 91% increase in isolation/loneliness. Service providers found that anxiety (85%) and depression (75%) were the primary mental health conditions that rose the most during the pandemic. Nearly 70% of youth reported growth in sleep disruptions and symptoms relating to existing mental health issues. Youth have also reported a 36% increase in suicidal thoughts, a 25% increase in instances of self-harm, and a 15% hike in suicidal attempts since the start of the pandemic. As substance use has increased during the pandemic, services providers have seen a 37% increase in overdoses among youth experiencing homelessness. Providers also found that access to abstinence-based services has decreased by 46%, and so has access to substitution therapy at 26%.

Where are Youth Going for Mental Health Supports?

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The top three most common establishments providers say youth go to access mental health services are online supports at 63%, hospitals at 42%, and emergency shelters at 36%. 20% of youth reportedly access mental health services through primary care clinics. 50% of youth service providers report a slight decrease in pursuing mental health supports, compared to 80% of service providers that report a significant decrease in accessing mental health services. Some service providers stated that changes in mental health and substance use were most prevalent in racialized and underrepresented groups of youth, mainly LGBTQs2+, refugees, and Indigenous youth.

“Individuals who identify within oppressed groups face increased barriers for accessing and having resources for support when they hold another oppressive was a substance user. It’s an added layer of stress and barriers.”

- Youth Service Provider

Consequences of Public Health Policy

Many providers noted the challenges of complying with public health guidelines and how these recommendations can possibly worsen mental health illnesses and substance use among racialized youth. Providers mentioned the significance of racialized youth spending time in social groups where a sense of belonging is felt and created. Limitations on activity from the pandemic have made connections with their peers difficult. Further, providers have noted that youth have increased their use of substances independently. Notably, providers reported that a majority of youth do not have equal access to technology, thus making it difficult to use/find the mental health and substance use supports that are necessary.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Service Delivery

Image courtesy of Ministry to Youth.

The pandemic has changed the delivery of services for organizations. In relation to access to mental health services, the bulk of providers (69%) say that their facilities are closed (18%) or their services are now offered only offsite (51%). In terms of substance use, many providers (62%) informed that they are providing services remotely (50%) or agencies are completely closed (12%) – fully suspending substance use services. Many providers note that mental health services have mostly been moved to delivery by phone (81%). The second most common adaptation is the shifting to video chat (68%), then followed by connecting with youth through social media platforms (45%). Whatever the platform service, 58% of providers share that they have increased their outreach activities distinctive to mental health.

End Notes

If you or someone you know is going through homelessness, please reach out to any of the services available in your region. Help is always available to those who ask for it. This can be through someone you trust, such as your family member or teacher, or someone licensed in their profession, such as a psychologist.

Article author: Fariah Sandhu

Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Victoria Huang

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