Street-involved youth: Citizens of the city?

In my last post, I spoke briefly about the emergence of a “consumer citizenship” that is increasingly defining the way that people see themselves within political community. It’s a poignant example of the way that the concept of citizenship is constantly shifting in response to changing social, cultural, economic, and political norms. Despite the fact that the content and character of citizenship is always changing, it’s power as a broader idea has never ceased: to be a citizen of a broad community, such as a city or a country, means to share identity, rights, responsibilities, and a sense of belonging with others.

Sociologist T.H Marshall, in his essay entitled “Citizenship and Social Class,” describes citizenship as a set of civic, political, and social rights formed amongst such community members. Civic rights consist of protections against injustices such as arbitrary punishment and discrimination, while political rights are those we associate with representative government, such as the ability to vote. Social rights include access to basic needs, such as a living wage, education, and health care – provisions that we often collectively refer to as a social safety net.

Marshall emphasizes that the maintenance of each category of rights is dependent on the integrity of the others; widespread political participation would crumble without good schooling, for instance, and universal suffrage is inconceivable without anti-discrimination measures.  He also notes that although such rights theoretically comprise citizenship, continued class disparities preclude the realization of it as a universal standard. In other words, although we all may be nominally “Canadian,” continued social and economic inequality renders this common citizenship practically meaningless in many aspects of everyday life.

Almost every day, I encounter folks in downtown Toronto that embody this paradox. I’ve discovered that people living on the margins –  whom I might quietly write off as  “bums” and leeches if I didn’t spend any time getting to know them – are often as intellectually curious as any 9-5’er working the grind at Bay and King. Many are aware of current affairs, and cognitively equipped to contribute to local and national civil society. Deeper conversation, however, reveals that they do not enjoy a wide range of civil, political, and social rights.

Street-involved youth are one such group of people. Sharon and I, along with a small group of volunteers, organize a weekly outreach to street youth in which we build community by listening to stories, enjoying sandwiches and hot chocolate, and making the odd housing or service referral. As we walk the streets each Friday night, we are led into rich conversation with bright young adults who, despite being citizens in a basic civic sense by merit of being born in Canada, live in extreme poverty and feel alienated from political life. Essentially, they do not experience the fullness of citizenship as Marshall describes it.

A popular perception is that street youth possess rights in the same way as everyone else, but neglect to claim them due to laziness, apathy, and ignorance. In a cogent piece on homelessness and employment, Stephen Gaetz and Bill O’Grady argue that such assumptions are themselves rooted in ignorance, in that they ignore the deep structural barriers that street youth face. They claim that youth struggle to find employment due to insidious patterns of social exclusion that deprive them of advantages other young adults have in preparing to enter the workforce.

Social exclusion extends beyond the work world to manifest itself in the comprehensive denial of citizenship to street youth. In addition to facing material depravity, youth are daily led to believe – by police, business owners, and passers-by – that they are of little worth to society. Rather than compelling them to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” such indictments alienate street youth to prevailing social norms, and discourage them from exercising political rights and participating in civil society.

In this way, we commit a disservice not only to street youth, but also to our political community as a whole. We constantly speak of building up “future leaders” through investment in public education and healthy homes for our children; why, then, do we address another group of fledgling citizens with scorn and dismissal?

I plan on exploring questions like these in further detail as I spend more time getting to know street youth. It’s important to emphasize that I don’t mean to homogenize them into a single category: for many, the “homeless” label is one of the only things they explicitly have in common. I’ve also discovered, though, a common desire amongst youth to live in wholesome community and work towards social justice. If this isn’t at the moral heart of citizenship, I don’t know what is.

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One Response to Street-involved youth: Citizens of the city?

  1. Brian Plouffe says:

    Good thoughts on the marginalized Tom. Keep reaching out to them my friend for that is what Jesus our Lord did when Hew as amongst us. Blessings on you my young friend.

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