Youth shelters in Toronto offer more than a roof overhead

When 21-year-old Kiwayne knocked on the door of Covenant House, in Toronto, he had been living without a home intermittently for four years. Kiwayne was forced to leave his foster family at the age of 17.

“Being so young and trying to manage paying rent, buying food, going to school and working a full-time job is not an ideal situation for anyone,” Kiwayne said.

Covenant House estimates about 2,000 youth between the ages of 16 to 24 are homeless in Toronto on any given night. And one in four left home before the legal age, just as she or he is about to move from youth to adulthood.

Helping homeless and at-risk youth live independently requires more than simply providing meals and accommodation.

“The staff at Covenant House were very helpful,” Kiwayne said. “They helped me understand my own goals, what I wanted to do and helped me create a life plan with the activities and the life skills.”

Like Covenant House, other youth shelters in Toronto try to offer young people essential life skills. Horizons for Youth serves the northern part of Toronto. Jimmy Tobin is the day program facilitator.

“Room and board alone are not going to get them out of here (and able to take care of themselves),” Tobin said. “They need more help and more support.”

Young people who are not ready to integrate back into the society can sign up for yoga and kickboxing classes, art programs and field trips through the week at Horizons for Youth. It also organizes advocacy workshops that help young clients understand their identity and build up their confidence.

“If the programs are not directly teaching the youth skills, at least they are getting them to the point where they are able to absorb those skills,” Tobin said.

Tanya Gulliver, the project co-ordinator of Canadian Homelessness Research Network, confirmed the efforts many of the shelters have made.

“There is an eagerness and willingness amongst many agencies who work with youth experiencing homelessness to begin to do things differently,” Gulliver said.

To the clients and the staff at shelters, there is no improvement too small.

At Covenant House, Kiwayne learned how to manage everyday tasks of living.

“(I learned how to) take care of laundry, shopping for food, planning a budget,” Kiwayne said. “Those are essential things that every young person needs to learn to (move) into adulthood.”

Tobin said sometimes a young person’s progress is slow, “but every effort a youth makes to improve his or her future deserves to be celebrated.”