How This Canadian City is Curbing Youth Homelessness

And why this work is especially important in the face of a pandemic

Why It Matters

Affordable housing was one of the top issues on young people’s minds in the last federal election — even before COVID-19 highlighted the intense vulnerability people who are homeless face. As housing becomes less affordable in mid-size and major cities across the country, there’s a need to strategize how to prevent youth homelessness, both during the crisis and afterward. Our third story in partnership with United Way Centraide Canada.

When Brandon’s landlord did not renew his lease, he found himself homeless. At age 24, Brandon* spent months couch surfing and staying with friends in Kingston, Ontario, joining the estimated 50,000 Canadians who are considered “hidden homeless.”

Brandon was in and out of school, had insecure and short-term work, and struggled to juggle appointments for apartment viewings across the city while taking public transport or walking.

“It was one of the toughest times on my mental health. I was completely drained from being turned down [from housing] over and over again… It was really overwhelming,” he shares.

This wasn’t Brandon’s first time experiencing homelessness. As a teenager, he was homeless for six months, sleeping at the back of an office building, and sometimes in a forest. Brandon kept his belongings in a duffel bag stored in his high school’s guidance office and would arrive early to school to shower in the gym without raising suspicion.

Finding himself experiencing homelessness once again, Brandon connected with a youth case worker who helped him navigate social services and connected him with One Roof Kingston Youth Hub. A partner agency with United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (UW KFL&A), One Roof provides a range of services for youth experiencing homelessness, including mental health and addictions support, food security, and a youth drop-in program.

“It was a really positive environment that was welcoming. It was a light in my life,” Brandon says.

The centre is part of the collective impact project on youth homelessness by UW KFL&A, which includes more than a dozen groups which meet monthly to share ideas and updates on work that tackles youth homelessness in Kingston. Whereas many organizations focus solely on providing long-term housing as a solution to homelessness, UW KFL&A addresses the root causes, such as addiction or family conflict, which helps to prevent and reduce homelessness in a holistic way

Across Canada, one in five people living in homeless shelters are youth. In Kingston, that number was one in three. 

Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, United Way KFL&A is working to support youth who are homeless, as their inability to practice social distancing makes them more vulnerable to the virus.

[The Coronavirus] has highlighted the vulnerability of youth in a situation like this and how the lack of support can impact them,” says Bhavana Varma, the President and CEO of United Way KFL&A.

She says people who are homeless have less access to information as they may not own a television, radio, or have access to the Internet. Finding a safe place to self-isolate is a challenge, as is continuing to receive support from services such as mental health or addictions counsellors, who are unable to provide in-person support. In addition, with the closure of most public spaces, maintaining hygiene becomes challenging, as washrooms are no longer accessible. 

United Way is supporting youth to find services that are still available, and adapting them for accessibility. Understanding that most youth in their shelter do not own cell phones, they purchased tablets to distribute so that youth can stay connected and continue virtual counselling. 

In addition, in the UW KFL&A emergency youth shelter in Kingston, typically, four people would stay in a room with one washroom on every floor. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the youth moved into another building in order to self-isolate, where they each have separate rooms and washrooms.

Although challenging, Varma says their work during the coronavirus pandemic is only possible because of strong relationships with the agency’s partners, developed over years of working together to find solutions to youth homelessness. 

“With youth homelessness, no one had a clue what needed to be done so it was really great to come up with something innovative. It gave us a lot more leeway to experiment,” Varma says. 

In learning how to effectively tackle this issue, United Way has focused on consulting with youth. They’ve learned that family conflict — such as being rejected for being queer — is the top reason youth are homeless, followed by mental illness and addiction. According to United Way, 25 to 40 percent of youth who are homeless identify as LGBTQ2S, compared to five to 10 percent of the general population.

As the causes for youth homelessness are different from adult homelessness, the solutions must be different too, says Varma. Since youth experiencing homelessness typically lack the skills and life experience to successfully live independently, they should be in transitional housing.

“Youth need to be wrapped [with] support. Some groups want [long-term] housing right away, but we have proven that transitional housing works,” Varma says, explaining that youth who go through transitional housing stay housed for a longer time than those who do not.

Based on their consultations with youth, UW KFL&A introduced new programming including family mediation, an LGBTQ+ mental health program, a wellness hub, forums for educators, and unique strategies to support Indigenous and female youth. 

The collective impact project on youth homelessness is funded by various sources such as private philanthropy, a grant from the Innoweave Foundation, and the Kingston Penitentiary tours. The tours of the infamous penitentiary donate 50 percent of their proceeds, which has added about $900,000 in annual funds. Varma explains that this allowed the organization to experiment with solutions for homeless youth who face a multitude of barriers, such as their family mediation program for youth who are experiencing family conflict and are at risk of homelessness.

Brandon, a survivor of abuse who lives with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, explains the complexity: A lot of people don’t understand that there are multiple layers… It snowballs into this big issue that is impossible to deal with. It’s not as simple as going to a shelter and being fine.”

With support, Brandon found employment and housing. “I’ve really found community and a home within the city that I never found anywhere else. I can spend the rest of my life in Kingston and I can say that because there are so many wonderful and genuinely supportive people here.” 

In Kingston, as an annual exercise, street outreach workers survey every person experiencing homelessness they encounter on a given day. In 2013, their count found that 60 percent of people on the streets in Kingston were youth. By 2016, that figure was down to 17 percent, and in 2017, none of the people they encountered experiencing homelessness were youth. 

While Varma says that survey doesn’t mean youth homelessness has been eliminated, it is reflective of declining numbers.

Brandon is hopeful youth homelessness will soon be an issue of the past. “The support these agencies provide because of United Way really changes lives in our community. It saves lives.”

*Brandon is a pseudonym.