February 06, 2018

US, Canadian service providers share advice on meeting legal needs of homeless youth

“Young people who are homeless often come to the streets having experienced trauma,” said Stephen Gaetz, the head of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub and the author of Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, the largest national study of youth homelessness in Canada, which was released last year. “And they are often further traumatized on the streets.”

Stephen Gaetz, head of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub, speaks at the Midyear Meeting learning exchange on the legal needs of homeless youth

Graetz was a panelist on “ABA and Canadian Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Learning Exchange: Improving Outcomes by Removing Legal Barriers,” hosted by the ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty and the ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network in partnership with A Way Home Canada. The event was held on Feb. 2 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver.

The program was also an outgrowth of ABA President Hilarie Bass’ Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative, which aims to bring legal service providers to where homeless youth are.

Gaetz shared some of what his 17 years of research on justice and youth shows.

If street youth do have some support, he said, it is usually professional and does not come from family. He talked about two marked characteristics of youth experiencing homelessness:

  • They experience “adolescence interrupted,” in that they do not get to grow into adulthood gradually, but on the streets are expected to act as adults to survive.

  • In addition, he said, for them “time collapses.” Their focus is necessarily always on the immediate – the next meal, a place to sleep – so following through on something like a warrant or an upcoming appointment is difficult.

One cluster of legal issues faced by youth experiencing homelessness involves housing, eviction and exploitation by landlords. Gaetz said his research showed that homeless youth average three jobs a year, but they are low level and usually paid under the table. In addition, they are often subject to scams and sexual exploitation.

Debt loans are high among homeless youth, which Gaetz attributed in part to the “criminalization of homelessness,” such as fines for panhandling.

Similar to the United States, Canada’s homeless youth are heavily minority, LGBT and refugees as well as disproportionately from indigenous populations.

Julia Huys, a lawyer for Justice for Children and Youth, spoke about her routine as the single lawyer in Toronto representing homeless youth full-time.

Huys emphasized accessibility. “We reach out to young people where they spend their time,” she said. She goes to one or two homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers in Toronto each week, where she gives “know your rights” presentations on such topics as housing, employment and police stop-and-search. She gradually gets to know the clients and allows them a chance to vent.

The most important aspect of her work, she says, is consistency, which helps her clients trust her.

In addition to meeting street youth where they are, she advised communicating with them the way they communicate, such as by text and Facebook Messenger.

Among the lessons Huys has learned are:

  • Measure your expectations. Huys doesn’t set specific appointments, but offers a large window of time when she is available to meet (such as “anytime on Friday” or “five hours on Thursday”), because expecting the young people to show up for a specific appointment is “unrealistic.”

  • Build relationships with community workers, which is fundamental for getting referrals of young people who need legal help.

  • Know that mental health issues are prevalent in this population and that anxiety runs high.

  • Train social services providers to identify legal problems. Huys’ group hosts training programs twice a year for this purpose.

Huys described one young woman who lives in a rooming house, is addicted to meth and has many theft charges due to her addiction. She also has mental health and anxiety issues and two children under the care of the state. Huys described picking her up to bring her to court and spending time with her after the court appointment.

“We are friends, in a way,” she said. Homeless youth need an adult ally, Huys stressed, and service providers – including lawyers – need “to be prepared to play that role.” It can be draining, she noted, and boundaries need to be set.

In Canada, legal aid is provincially funded, Huys said, and the biggest hurdles to the growth of her program are funding and capacity.

Among the practices being used in the States that the Canadian panelists took note of are state-specific Homeless Youth Handbooks (HomelessYouth.org).  Angela Vigil, partner and executive director of Baker & McKenzie’s pro bono practice, discussed how the firm’s pro bono attorneys compiled them.

Noting that Canada has placed an emphasis on preventing youth homelessness, Steve Scudder, counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, said, “We need to shift to prevention in a very real way,” by fixing the social systems that are failing. “In what other issue would you say prevention is irrelevant?” he asked.

Graetz observed that Canada is weighing passing a law to make housing a right for all citizens, so that may eventually become another best practice the United States adopts from its neighbors to the north.