Youth homelessness: A problem that continues to grow

Andres Gil, 21, recently stayed at Kennedy House on Pape Avenue.
Andres Gil, 21, recently stayed at Kennedy House on Pape Avenue. (IMG_1816)

Andres Gil, 21, is proof of the proposition that street youth aren’t just an abstraction. They’re individuals, with individual backgrounds that have somehow led them to a common circumstance.

Gil, 21, recently took up temporary residence at Kennedy House,  a shelter for homeless young people on Pape Avenue in East York. A student from Venezuela, he studied English in Toronto. He had no job. He became homeless, with little legal status or proper documents.

Gil would like to stay in Canada and is trying to apply for refugee status, but his is unable to afford a lawyer if his application is declined.

“I’m afraid [the Canadian government] might say ‘No,'” he said.

Gwen Atkinson, a Kennedy House shelter donor, said youths like Gil need help to move forward.

“Some of them are just stuck,” she said.

Then there’s a young woman named Amanda. One recent cold night,  I found her sitting on the sidewalk alongside a busy street with her Rottweiler. She had a backpack, and was holding an empty cup and a sign asking for spare change. It was -3C shortly after rush hour. People did not glance at her. They were busy getting on streetcars to go home.

“I have been homeless for five years,” Amanda said. “I just haven’t made any money today.”

Amanda, 19, is from Vancouver. She is in Toronto to meet up with her husband. They just broke up. She was raised by foster parents and was sent to group homes because she was not very good with rules. When she was 14, she decided to leave group homes and turned to the streets. Now, a bit dirty with disheveled light brown hair, Amanda survives by panhandling.

According to a study conducted by Shout Clinic, a health service for homeless youth, 36 per cent of youth in Canada earn money by panhandling or “squeegeeing.”

Gil and Amanda are among the 10,000 who are homeless in the GTA. Bruce Rivers, a child welfare expert and advocate who now runs Toronto’s Covenant House, said that the problem of youth homelessness is only getting worse.

“It’s a huge challenge every year,” Rivers said “A number of issues need to be addressed, not the least is prevention.”

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Former Magna CEO Belinda Stronach, left, and Bruce Rivers, child welfare expert and advocate and Executive Director of Covenant House. (IMG_1066)

Covenant House, the largest homeless youth shelter in Canada, is just a 10-minute walk from Amanda’s sidewalk stakeout. Its biggest annual event, “Sleep Out”, was held late last year. Business leaders from across the country gathered and slept outside all night on cardboard boxes, in their sleeping bags. Covenant House raised nearly a million dollars at the event.

Amanda chose to not stay at Covenant House due to unpleasant experiences with troubled youths in other homeless shelters. She has met homeless kids who were forced to commit crimes. She also said  she has two homeless friends who sell their bodies, just to survive.

“They weren’t happy about it,” she said. “but for them, there was no other way.”

Studies conducted by Shout Clinic show that over 10 per cent of the homeless youth in Canada have participated in sex trade work. Other studies by Raising the Roof, a supporter of long-term solutions to homelessness, show that the plight of street kids is largely misunderstood. Some of the causes of youth homelessness are abuse, neglect, insecurity, shortage of good jobs and affordable housing, which ultimately hinder adolescents from moving forward.

“It’s certainly a significant issue that we battle in the city,” city councillor Mike Layton said in an interview. “There is no easy solution.”

According to Layton, who has been opposed to cuts to homeless shelters, immediate housing should not be the only thing focused on. It’s also important to look at how to establish a plan for the youth to progress and to become independent.

The new administration of Mayor John Tory is making more resources available for the homeless — and that includes yesterday’s announcement that the city will work with Covenant House to create a shelter for young women in danger of sexual exploitation.

But Layton said municipalities also need the federal government to show leadership.

“We have to demand it, they have the biggest share of taxes collected, and the city is very small by comparison.” Layton said. “They need to start stepping up to the plate.”

Although Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, youth homelessness has been a serious issue. A study conducted by Raising the Roof said that people have only been starting to learn about the problem in the last 15 years. According to Covenant House, 87 per cent of North Americans don’t know the extent of the issue. And while it’s clear to Gil and Amanda that something is being done, it’s not enough.

“Why would Stephen Harper care about me?” Amanda said.

When she was asked what her one wish would be, she fell silent and looked off into the distance, thinking.

“To have a house, just to have a house,” she finally said. “You know, one that is mine.”