Ottawa summit tackles youth homelessness

A three-day symposium in Ottawa is bringing together homeless youth, service providers and policy makers to try to find solutions to the lack of affordable housing and other supports for teens and young adults.

900 young people use shelters in Ottawa, but actual number of homeless youth thought to be much higher

Charlotte Smith was homeless for nine years after being kicked out of her house at 15. She's now taking part in a symposium in Ottawa aimed at fixing the issues underlying youth homelessness. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

A three-day symposium in Ottawa is bringing together homeless youth, service providers and policy makers to try to find solutions to the lack of affordable housing and other supports for teens and young adults.

There are around 900 homeless people under the age of 25 who use shelters in the nation's capital, according to the 2016 progress report from the Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa.

[Homelessness] really can happen to anyone.- Charlotte Smith, former homeless youth

But Jacqueline Kennelly, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University and the symposium's organizer, said that number doesn't take into account the "hidden homeless" — young people who couch surf or stay with extended family.

Charlotte Smith, 29, knows all too well how a life can spiral downward once someone becomes homeless. Smith, who moved to Canada from England, said she was kicked out of her house at 15 when she couldn't adjust to life here.

She felt like no one cared, and even trying to get social assistance was daunting because of the long, complicated forms, she said.

Hitting rock bottom

Smith dropped out of high school and moved in with a man twice her age. She became addicted to Oxycontin, then crack. She moved out again, but this time she turned to shelters and the street.

The crisis that we're in now has been 30 years in the making, and it's not going to be resolved overnight.- Jacqueline Kennelly,  Carleton University

She started shoplifting and got into prostitution to support her drug habit. She was soon in and out of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

That's when she hit rock bottom, and realized she had to turn her life around.

"I thought, if I come out of jail and go back to the street, this is going to be me. So, I either have to accept that as my life, or I can try," she said. "I can try, give it one last chance, and if it doesn't work I'll go back to crack."

She considers herself lucky that she was able to get support and attend a college program before applying to Carleton University. Now she hopes to help change policy and develop new strategies to help the homeless.

No quick fixes

The symposium is the first in Ottawa to bring together different organizations, policy makers and homeless youth to come up with concrete actions to address the underlying problems around youth homelessness, particularly among Indigenous and LGBT youth, who are disproportionately represented among the homeless population.

Kennelly doesn't expect any quick fixes, but believes the federal government must build affordable housing instead of downloading that responsibility to provinces, municipalities and even corporations.

"The crisis that we're in now has been 30 years in the making, and it's not going to be resolved overnight. It's going to take a long time," she said.

It's also going to take compassion, Smith said.

"[Homelessness] really can happen to anyone. I think there's a perception that it happens to low-income delinquents or something like that. People who deserve it. They haven't tried hard enough or they don't care enough about themselves. They have no respect," she said. "But it's really not. I've met so many people from all different kinds of life and backgrounds who have ended up addicted to a substance or homeless."

The symposium is taking place at the University of Ottawa until Thursday.