A Safe Haven for our Youth

Photo: Eva's Initiatives / LGA Architectural Partners and Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Toronto’s homeless youth are at record levels. In the city, and across Canada, these numbers are rising. Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth is an innovative shelter fighting this crisis. Its model may be what saves our vulnerable youth.

It is 8:30 a.m. on a weekday in a non-descript building in downtown Toronto. As still and plain as the building appears from outside, a breathtaking scene is unfolding inside. Giuseppina, who is maybe in her early 20s, is seated at the head of a long, rectangular table. Some 20 or so members of the business community are listening to her every word. Giuseppina is relaxed yet cautious. She speaks slowly as she tugs a sweater sleeve over her hand. She bites her lip, hesitating while talking about homeless youth to a room full of strangers. Yet she wants these influential people to understand the challenges faced by 2,000 young people who are homeless on any given night in Toronto. Throughout the year, that figure reaches as high as 10,000. Guiseppina is in a unique position to help these executives understand the homelessness problem: she once lived on the streets herself.

Giuseppina’s story is bleak and dispiriting. Her single mother struggled for years to make ends meet. When she lost her job, and became chronically unemployed, the family fell into a cycle of poverty. At 18, Giuseppina was sharing a mattress with her grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment. The poverty eventually forced her to move into a group home. Giuseppina’s boyfriend became addicted to alcohol and crack and soon began to violently assault her. After months of physical abuse, Giuseppina escaped and fled to a hospital. She stayed there for two weeks to deal with her physical injuries and depression. She lost 40 pounds and could barely muster the strength to get out of bed.

As Giuseppina watched her youth disintegrate before her eyes, she wondered why this was happening to her. At the time, she’d think to herself, “I’ve lived most of my life watching society happen and function, wishing that I could be a part of it.” Giuessepina ached to have a normal, productive life.

She would eventually discover Eva’s Initiative for Homeless Youth, a shelter battling the growing homeless youth crisis in Toronto. Eva’s took Giuseppina off the streets, sheltered her and provided her with the educational and skills based tools for the functioning life she craved. Eva’s prevented Giuseppina from descending deeper into the dangerous abyss of youth homelessness.

What we know about youth homelessness

Without a Home

In 2016, Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University and director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, along with colleagues, published “Without a Home” a 126-page study on youth homelessness in Canada—the first pan-Canadian study of its kind. The study found that over 50 per cent of homeless youth end up on the streets due to physical or sexual abuse. The remaining 50 per cent result from parental mental health problems, parental alcohol or drug problems, discrimination of sexual orientation, racism and removal from child protection services.

In Toronto, poverty tends to be a root cause in all these factors. When asked, approximately 70 per cent of homeless young people say it is the byproduct of their family’s poverty that leads to parents—often with substance abuse issues—inflicting physical or emotional abuse and forcing their children to flee.

Divided City: Life in Canada’s Child Poverty Capital

“Divided City: Life in Canada’s Child Poverty Capital”, a 2016 report published by a coalition of social agencies, referred to Toronto as the child poverty capital of Canada. The report found that more than 40 per cent of kids in 14 Toronto neighbourhoods were living in families below the Low-Income Measure, approximately $35,600 for total family income. As a result, Toronto now has over 133,000 kids that live below the poverty line. That is a major pipeline of homeless youth ready to burst onto Toronto streets.

The immediate impacts on homeless youth are staggering. The “Without a Home” study of homeless youth found - 46 per cent lack access to nutritious food, 53 per cent drop out of high school, 75 per cent remain chronically unemployed and 85 per cent report high symptoms of distress. One youth shelter estimated that 30 per cent of its residents had “traded sex for survival”. They noted youth sex trafficking in Toronto is rising at an alarming rate.

The climatic mental and emotional costs are staggering. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates the mortality rate of homeless youth is 40 times the rate of housed youth, with suicide the primary cause.

Giuseppina is finishing her story. She explains that thanks to Eva’s Initiative, she was able to find shelter, regain a psychological calmness and eventually study in an apprentice program. She now supports herself through a job in the trades industry and is proud of her small bachelor apartment. “It may be small but its mine.”

The room is temporarily silent. The audience’s expressions show a mixture of disbelief and gratulation. Giuseppina thanks them for listening to her story. They respond with a loud ovation and words of admiration for her perseverance. Each guest personally thanks Giuseppina for sharing her personal revelation. They then begin a tour of the shelter called Eva’s Phoenix, the flagship location of the program. As unremarkable as it appears from outside, Eva’s Phoenix is quite stunning inside with its tall floor-to-ceiling white walls and open concept reminiscent of a modern art gallery combined with a trendy tech start-up. The shelter, numerous guests note, exudes a sense of calm and peacefulness.

Eva’s leads the fight to help homeless youth

Eva Smith

Eva’s Initiative was created in 1994 and was named in honour of Eva Smith, a high school guidance counselor in North York, who noticed that youth at-risk and those who were homeless were unrecognized and unsupported.

Today, Eva’s is recognized nationally as a leader in combating youth homelessness. In 2015, the organization was chosen as one of Canada’s top 10 impact charities by Charity Intelligence — the only youth shelter program to make the top 10. For every dollar donated, the average charity has a social return on investment of two dollars. Charity Intelligence calculates that for every dollar donated to Eva’s, there is nine dollars in social return.

Eva’s Place, Eva’s Satellite and Eva’s Phoenix

Eva’s has three locations in Toronto providing a mix of emergency shelter, transitional housing and education and employment support: Eva’s Place (the first youth shelter established in Toronto), Eva’s Satellite (founded at the request of the City of Toronto to treat homeless youth with substance abuse issues, and Canada’s only harm-reduction shelter for youth) and Eva’s Phoenix (a shelter providing employment training, educational support and independent living skills).

Eva’s operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with all three locations servicing approximately 125 male and female youth aged 16 to 24.

Eva’s results are impressive. In the course of a year, the organization will provide shelter to 850 youth, support over 1,500 youth with addiction and mental health needs and reconnect over 370 youth with their families. As part of its skills and training programs Eva’s will send over 200 youth into schools or the workforce.

Eva's Stats

Eva’s first objective is to get homeless youth off the streets and begin immediately treating them for the physical and psychological distress associated with being homeless. Mental health professionals are brought in to treat youth for high levels of stress and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There is a myth that homeless youth have done something wrong, that they didn’t want to follow the rules at home,” says Jocelyn Helland, Executive Director of Eva’s. “That is not the case. They are strong and resilient. It is amazing they can get out of bed considering what they have gone through.

It’s an effort to not only create mental stability but to make the youth realize they are not to blame. “There is a myth that homeless youth have done something wrong, that they didn’t want to follow the rules at home,” says Jocelyn Helland, Executive Director of Eva’s. “That is not the case. They are strong and resilient. It is amazing they can get out of bed considering what they have gone through.”

“Eva’s Phoenix saved my life”

The emotional trauma of being homeless was well documented in a 2014 Toronto Life article titled “Gone Girl.” In the article, Emily Wright wrote a harrowing account of descending from life as a private school kid into a vulnerable, homeless child on Toronto’s streets. Drugs, prostitution, violence and crime are part of that world and, as Wright described, the descent can be fatal. Fortunately, through the help of Eva’s, Wright was able to get off the streets and eventually return to a normal life. She wrote, “Eva’s Phoenix saved my life.”

Once off the street, Eva’s comprehensive model is designed to not only provide the immediate necessities of food and shelter and mental health but to develop a sense of confidence, pride and self-sufficiency in each youth. This is accomplished through numerous programs focused on education and employment training.

Youth gain specialized education, skills-based training and pre-apprenticeship experiences in high-demand fields such as construction, building maintenance, security, culinary, aerospace and print and graphics. Eva’s works with training and industry partners such as trade unions, colleges and corporations to ensure youth are educated and trained to gain meaningful employment.

Eva's Phoenix Print Shop

Eva’s Phoenix Print Shop, located in the basement of Eva’s Phoenix, is Canada’s only commercial printer dedicated to providing employment training to homeless and at-risk youth. It was one of the printers used for the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games and has served other clients including Porter Airlines and several major Canadian banks.

Beyond education and employment, the organization teaches self-sufficiency skills such as cooking, financial literacy and conflict resolution. Youth are taught the importance of saving and managing personal budgets. Youth are expected to be employed while living in the shelter, with one-third of their earnings held in the agency’s “bank” to be returned to the youth when they leave. One youth saved enough to make a down payment on a condominium.

Eva’s was my port in the storm where I could get the guidance and resources I needed,” says Amy, who got support from a one-year program at Eva’s.

Eva’s comprehensive model is so successful it is garnering attention around the world. Recently, a contingent from Denmark visited Toronto to review and analyze Eva’s programs and facilities.

Amy’s story is an example of what Eva’s comprehensive model means for homeless youth. In the fall of 2012, Amy’s single mother suffered a mental health breakdown. She couldn’t pay the rent, the family was evicted, and Amy and her three younger brothers spent Christmas with their mother in a homeless shelter.

Eventually, Amy’s two youngest brothers went to live with their father. Amy, and her eldest brother moved into an emergency shelter. In recalling the story, Amy speaks stoically and calmly. There is neither anger nor tension in her voice. Her eyes are soft and she pervades a strong sense of composure. “It was terrible,” says Amy who was struggling to remain in university. “But then I heard of Eva’s. I applied and got in two weeks later. I was so lucky.”

She moved into Eva’s and during the year-long program she received psychotherapy, joined the running club, took up boxing and completed a 12-week printing and graphic arts course. Within that year, housing counselors helped her find an apartment in a rent-geared-to-income building.

Eva’s staff continues to support Amy in the community and helped her return to university to pursue a career in the medical sciences. “Eva’s was a calm, safe environment in a good location,” says Amy today. “It was my port in the storm where I could get the guidance and resources that I needed.”

The business guests have completed their tour. They thank the staff of Eva’s Phoenix and express their admiration for the shelters operating model and its programs. Hearing Giussepina’s story, and seeing the facilities first-hand, has had an effect.

A number of them express an eager desire to support Eva’s. They will return to their banks and real estate offices and discuss with colleagues how they can help. A construction business owner tells a tour guide he would like to offer training services and apprenticeships.

Eva’s and the other youth shelters will need their help. Typically, 30 per cent of their funding comes from a mix of corporations, foundations and personal donations. For some youth shelters, it can be as high as 80 per cent. Financial support from governments accounts for the remainder.

Toronto’s shelter system is at 97% capacity and this comes at a time when City Hall is planning to cut $600 million in community housing, transit and student nutrition.

The combination of limited government funding and policy failures creates chronic pressure on youth homeless shelters to stay afloat. The federal government’s recent National Housing Strategy committed $2.2 billion to homeless support programs but those funds are only to keep current programs (set to expire in 2019) in operation. Toronto’s shelter system is at 97% capacity and this comes at a time when City Hall is planning to cut $600 million in community housing, transit and student nutrition. Some youth shelters have already been forced to close including Second Base Youth Shelter, the only youth shelter in Scarborough. The City argues that declining financial transfers from the province are forcing these cuts. Its difficult to reconcile how the province cannot afford to keep Scarborough’s only youth shelter open when Ontario’s Sunshine List of public servants earning more than $100,000 a year continues to set records, with 2016’s list increasing by 6.9% and those already on the list receiving hefty pay raises. Toronto city councilor Joe Cressy, a vocal proponent of improvements to Toronto’s shelter system who was instrumental in the recent opening of Canada’s first LGBTQ youth shelter located in the Annex, is critical of the provincial Liberals. “The province has let us down. Ontario has not stepped up to the level we need.”

Frustrating policies hindering shelters

Policy failures are largely centered on two key issues: Child Protection Services and affordable housing.

Child protection services (also referred to in some jurisdictions as Children’s Aid or Child Welfare) are given responsibility by the State to ensure young people are protected from harm, neglect or abuse. Child protection services have an “age out” clause which literally forces youth out of the service (foster care, group home or youth custodial centres) by a certain age. In Ontario, youth get “aged out” at 18. As Gaetz describes it, “Happy Birthday. Here are your clothes and a bag.” There is some support until age 21 but this still leaves the youth in a precarious position, particularly at a time when the youth unemployment rate is in double digits and rental costs are at all-time highs. It’s no surprise that 60% of homeless youth have gone through Child Protection Services.

Lack of affordable housing is also playing a prominent role. The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association reports there are at least 90,000 households in Toronto waiting for affordable housing and that figure is growing 5% per year. Average wait periods are 10 years. In addition, scandal-plagued Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) continues to deal with a $1.6 billion backlog in repairs needed for existing affordable housing. There have been some recent improvements including TCHC’s development of bachelor units allocated to youth experiencing homelessness as well as the recent federal budget, which allocated $11 billion to affordable housing spending in Canada. Yet development remains slow and the money from the federal government will be spread over 10 years with only $3 billion expected to be spent by 2022. In addition, the Canada Housing Benefit, recently announced by the federal Liberals to target 300,000 low-income families, provides only $200 per month in housing subsidy and this only starts in 2020. It seems a typical policy response of a band-aid solution to a structural problem.

In addition to policy failures, there are also the societal prejudices that affect youth homelessness. The Chinatown Business Improvement Association recently protested against plans to move a youth shelter to Spadina Avenue between College and Dundas. Tonny Louie, past chair of the BIA commented, “What makes us so special that we need more grit? We don’t need more grit on Spadina Avenue.” The shelter is expected to be completed in 2018. Recently, noise-emitting devices, designed to target youth, were installed on a building at 415 Yonge Street, located next to a parkette and close to Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth. Eventually the devices were removed after media reporting and public outcry.

Toronto’s homeless youth figures are increasing and policy failures and societal prejudices are enabling its growth. Eva’s Initiative is one of the city’s shining examples of an organization with a program designed to not only provide shelter and mental support but also education and skills-based training so that youth can get a shot at a normal life.

The test of a city is how well it helps the people that need help. We need to step up on youth homelessness, says Councilor Cressy.

The fight doesn’t end when youth get through the shelter system does not mean the fight ends. Amy dealt with her mother’s mental breakdown, being removed from her brothers and resorting to living in emergency shelters. She overcame these obstacles and eventually graduated from Eva’s to attain a job and support herself. Yet she is well aware her struggle will continue. “Its kind of a dead end to work low wage and not be able to get affordable housing. It’s depressing and makes it hard to mentally and physically feel youth can get ahead and advance.” Many youth, unable to deal with the cost of living in overcrowding cities, will be forced to return to the streets.

The continued lack of government funding and policy errors will further exacerbate the already record levels of homeless youth. Perhaps this will eventually force all three levels of government to exchange slow, band-aid solutions to expedited structural reforms. Says Councilor Cressy, “The test of a city is how well it helps the people that need help. We need to step up on youth homelessness. Otherwise it is a moral and economic failure.” In the meantime, Eva’s Initiative will continue its fight to save one youth at a time.

If you’d like to help young people get back on track, consider donating to Eva’s.