Shifting Our Response to Youth Homelessness in Toronto

It’s been two years since the onset of COVID-19. At this point, the virus has left few of us unaffected. So, you likely won’t be surprised to hear that our research found that many young people experiencing homelessness were deeply impacted by the pandemic. With funding from Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, we conducted a mixed-method study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth experiencing homelessness. We also sought to identify ways that the homeless-serving sector in Toronto could become more collaborative and shift to a prevention-focused response to youth homelessness. We interviewed 45 youth, 31 staff, and 7 stakeholders, and surveyed 76 youth and 93 staff across four shelters in downtown Toronto. This blog provides an overview of our findings. 

Impact of the pandemic on youth experiencing homelessness

During COVID-19, many young people faced increased barriers to obtaining employment and housing. This left them feeling ‘stuck’ in the shelter system with no way to move forward. This became evident through our study where 64% of youth participants reported that the pandemic made it harder to find work, and 41% reported that they were laid off during the pandemic.

The increased barriers and reduced access to social networks and services led to many youth feeling isolated and lonely. Several survey participants reported increased mental health distress, and increased substance use. 

Our study found that the pandemic disproportionately impacted several populations. For instance, interview respondents spoke about how systemic racism made it even more difficult for Black youth to obtain employment and housing. In the youth survey, 70% of Black and/or Youth of Colour reported that finding employment during the pandemic was more challenging, compared to 36% of youth that identified as white. In addition, COVID-related restrictions shut down many identity-specific services that provided affirming spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Participants also shared that Indigenous, newcomer, and neurodiverse youth were also disproportionately impacted. 

Impact of the pandemic on staff

Although it was not an original objective of the study, the profound impact that the pandemic had on staff that work with youth experiencing homelessness became extremely apparent and was subsequently added as an objective. Staff described challenges including:

  • Anxiety over contracting COVID-19 at work and bringing it home to loved ones.
  • Ongoing staffing shortages.
  • Supporting youth with more acute needs. 
  • Exhaustion and burnt out. 

In our survey, we found that the longer staff were employed at a shelter, the more likely they were to experience symptoms of burnout. While 53% of all staff surveyed experienced burnout during the two weeks before taking the survey. However, when the length of time that the staff worked at their agency was accounted for, 72% of staff who worked at their agency for three years or more experienced symptoms of burnout. This was in contrast to only 19% of those employed at their agency for a year or less.

Collaboration in the youth homelessness sector

The pandemic facilitated increased collaboration within the youth homelessness sector in Toronto. Participants outlined numerous benefits of increasing collaboration across the sector but described having little capacity and resources to continue collaboration in the future. Several interview participants referred to the level of crisis that staff were dealing with at their agencies, and how that put them into a perpetual state of “putting out fires” rather than proactively creating collaborative strategies, even if this would ultimately improve the response to youth homelessness in Toronto.

During the survey, when asked to reflect on the state of collaboration in Toronto, just under 70% felt that the sector was in a “borderline” position, meaning that while there is some communication across agencies, there is still work to be done to increase the amount of collaboration.

Shifting to a prevention-focused response to youth homelessness

Several interview participants stated that Toronto’s homelessness system is currently structured to respond to emergencies rather than prevent homelessness. Staff spoke about the need to increase housing options for youth, provide more family-based support, improve various systems (particularly mental health), and provide expanded services in the community. The most common response from youth interview participants was the need to increase the amount of affordable housing and/or income supports. Several youth also spoke about their family situations leading to their experiences of homelessness but were often unaware of what supports would have helped them and their families. 

In the survey with youth, we asked which types of programs and services would have prevented their experience of homelessness. When the categories “would have helped a lot” and “would have helped” were grouped together, the most common response (61.1%) was housing workers. Just over half indicated that Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) and host homes programs would have helped (53% for each), and 50% indicated that mental health services would have been helpful. Just under half indicated that family counselling and eviction prevention would have helped (46% for each). 

Importantly, when asked which type of housing they would prefer upon leaving the shelter, nearly 70% of youth indicated they would like to have their own apartment. In comparison, 25% preferred a congregate, transitional housing option.

The bottom line

The pandemic has made an already urgent situation more dire. Many youth who are caught in the intersection of homelessness and the pandemic have more acute needs, yet have been faced with reduced access to services for over two years. Many of the staff members who work with these youth are burnt out and need support to restore their own wellbeing. Moreover, after moving thousands of people from shelters to hotels to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in shelters, the City of Toronto has virtually doubled its costs for providing emergency services to the homeless. These factors illustrate how unsustainable the current responses are, making the need to change the approach for addressing youth homelessness more important than ever. 

The good news is that despite the hardship, the pandemic also created opportunities to enhance collaboration, and the City of Toronto has made a significant effort to increase the amount of housing available during the pandemic, including utilizing funding from the federal government for rapid rehousing. Recent calls for funding from the City also show that they are prioritizing long-term housing options, and are interested in piloting shelter diversion and providing housing-focused shelter services. 

We can push these efforts further by creating a local strategy specific to youth homelessness, recognizing their unique developmental needs. This means creating youth-specific systems of care that match youth with the appropriate housing and services based on their needs and choice, rather than grouping youth within the broader population of homelessness (for instance, coordinated access and supportive housing). Current strategies often prioritize the chronically homeless, which can disadvantage young people who, by virtue of their age, may not present with the same level of acuity as adults. While this is understandable in the context of limited resources, these strategies do nothing to stop the flow into homelessness nor prevent young people’s needs from becoming more acute while they remain homeless. 

The recommendations from this research focus on creating a response to youth homelessness that provides system-wide upstream and early intervention services to youth, prioritizing family support and school engagement. We also highlight the need for more community-based services to prevent youth from entering the shelter system, such as shelter diversion. Research shows that first-time users might be a particularly appropriate target population for this type of intervention. When typical services are not suitable, a greater shift towards the HF4Y approach is needed in Toronto. HF4Yprovides tailored housing and service options to youth, as well as a housing subsidy. This research also shows that there is an urgent need for more dedicated resources for the mental and physical well-being of staff.  

The pandemic further underscored the role that housing plays in perpetuating health inequities. Congregate emergency shelters are not only a public health risk in the face of a pandemic, they have not been effective at reducing youth homelessness in Toronto. Until we step back and develop a proactive, evidence-based strategy, the problem of youth homelessness will remain unabated in Toronto, with long-term negative consequences for young people. Amid all this hardship, the pandemic can also serve as an opportunity and impetus to do things differently. We have an unprecedented opportunity to use the negative impacts of the pandemic and necessary shifts in practice as a chance to change the status quo and reimagine the way youth homelessness is addressed in Toronto and beyond. 

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