In a university of over 80,000 students, and in a city over 30 times that size, young people find it all too easy to blend into the background. For some, however, the retreat into invisibility is a pressing issue. From personal scars to political controversies, students, youth workers, social justice advocates, and professors shed light on youth homelessness in the city.
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By Ilya Bañares and Steven Lee
In the summer of 2015, U of T News published an article about Anh Cao, an international student who had graduated not only with a 4.0 GPA, but who had earned that GPA while living in a homeless shelter for part of his studies. As a homeless student myself at the time, I found the very nature of the article intriguing. From my experience, many youth who experience homelessness are not inclined to disclose their living conditions to close friends, much less publish them. While the article exemplified the trials and tribulations of Cao’s experience, I couldn’t help but feel that there was an underlying issue failing to be adequately addressed: what type of support exists for homeless students?
Looking back on my years as a homeless student, I understand why homelessness persists. The cost of living as a student has risen in recent years, and homelessness is a product of such conditions. While the subject is gaining greater public interest, it’s still rarely depicted in a hopeful light in the media. Homeless students in particular are burdened with heavy stigma, sometimes resulting in reluctance to receive support due to fear of discrimination on campus. This comes alongside the additional stress of maintaining grades. Maintaining a façade under such heavy physical, mental, and financial strain can result in a segment of the homeless population that is ‘hidden’ and fenced off from support and a safe place to live for days, months, and possibly years.
This article is an attempt to address the various components that shape the invisible struggle homeless students are facing and provide insight on a situation in which, if you need help, you cannot simply ask.
— Steven Lee
Being both homeless and a student
“Honestly, I was expecting it to be kind of crazy — but I kept to myself,” Nadia*, a homeless youth, said about living in a shelter. “I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t make any friends because I felt like I was here for a reason, and I didn’t feel like staying for a long time, and I was kind of advised on staying there for a long time, kind of just saving my money and then trying to go to school.”
While thousands of young people roam the streets of Toronto every night, few are willing to recount the raw realities of pursuing an education while living in a shelter. Nadia is 20 years old and is attending Ryerson University for nursing. They are currently residing at Covenant House Toronto under the CIBC Rights of Passage (ROP) program. Covenant House is the largest homeless youth agency in the country, and it sees up to 250 young people per day.
ROP is an onsite transitional housing program that aims to prepare youth for a transition from a crisis shelter while practicing life skills. The program emphasizes support for younger individuals and those who have a more urgent need to move out. Youth selected for ROP tend to be individuals who have demonstrated a degree of preparedness for a life of independence.
“I stayed there for a month and then I got moved to the transitional housing,” said Nadia. “The first day of my intake, I was like, ‘I don’t really want to stay here for a long time, I want to know what my options are, what do you offer?’ And then they told me about ROP… and after that I kept asking about it, and I find it kind of funny how they don’t tell everyone about the options they have, they’re kinda selective on who they tell unless you ask.”
RJ*, a student at Monsignor Fraser College, expressed the difficulty of living with other youth. “It’s not easy living there,” said RJ. “I mean first of all, you have to live with a bunch of people with their own issues as well, and staff that may not understand your concerns, and they’re kind of hard on you.”
RJ felt that educators at Monsignor Fraser reaching out to youth workers helped them feel supported in school. “They support, they understand, and they even [went to] lengths to come to the program to actually talk to the team leaders, or my worker,” said RJ. “Because [youth workers] weren’t really supporting me, [the educators] wanted me to feel supported because they could see it was taking a toll in my schooling.”
Nadia, on the other hand, expressed waning faith in Ryerson’s ability to support their situation, specifically with regard to obtaining financial aid. “The first time I went [to seek financial aid] I was still at [a shelter residence]… and they said, ‘Well, you’ve only been there for a month, are you sure this isn’t a phase? Or are you going back home?’ And I’m like, ‘No, this is not a phase, this is pretty serious, I’m here for a reason.’”
Nadia’s pursuit of an education garners favour when interacting with youth workers. “Sometimes I get treated differently… maybe it’s ’cause I’m in university and it’s like I’m the ‘inspiration’ and, ‘You should stay here for another year, and we think you are a good role model.’”
RJ recounted a different experience, noting the rigidity of the current support structure provided by transitional housing programs. “I’m getting close to moving out and honestly, they’ve helped me a little bit, but they’ve tried… helping me [more] at the ending, like forcing me to leave,” they observed. “Like, ‘Okay, this is your deadline now, you have to do all of this [stuff]… that they don’t tell you to do in the beginning. It’s kind of like they’re setting you up to fail.”
Nadia and RJ hope for increased accessibility to financial support and life skills or employment programs that would help buffer their education. “It’s very hard when people, who… aren’t in social work, like financial aid workers… are the ones judging your case, so basically you go in, tell your entire story to them, and they are basically going to judge whether you need that support or not,” remarked Nadia.
The youth worker’s perspective
Trying to help embattled homeless youth is a daunting task. Stacey Rees, a youth worker with Covenant House Toronto, said the biggest issues are a lack of resources and building relationships and trust with the youth.
Brodie Montreuil is another youth worker at Covenant House. His position entails coordinating with youth to give them the specific care that they need, depending on their unique situation. He stressed that every person is a different case and that homelessness should not be generalized.
“We have people coming in from all different backgrounds — new Canadians, refugees, people [who] came from violent homes, addiction, mental health,” he said. “My job, I consider it to be similar to a doctor in the sense that I get someone to come here, and I assess what services they need, and then I send them off to a specialist.”
Rees and Montreuil both noted that youth can become homeless due to a variety of factors, though they agree that lack of family support in particular is prevalent and a big issue. Rees mentioned conflicts involving a youth’s family not understanding their situation, such as mental health struggles, addictions, or sexual orientation.
According to Covenant House, close to 80 per cent of youth become homeless because of family conflict, and 63 per cent reported experiencing childhood trauma and abuse.
Montreuil observed that when he was a mature student five years ago, he did not have a real understanding of the issue — he “knew nothing about homelessness.”
When he eventually became a youth worker, he was immediately struck, realizing the kids were the same as him. “In terms of just the way they act, the way they dress, in my brain, there was originally a stereotype of a squeegee kid or something like that. That wasn’t the case at all, and everyone came from different backgrounds, everyone had different education, everyone had different barriers.”
Montreuil underlined that as a young professional, even though he struggled with employment for a while, his situation did not compare to those of homeless youth. He, for example, obtained help from his mother and partner. “If I didn’t have those support systems… I wouldn’t have been able to support myself,” he said. “What I’m trying to get at the most is that a lot of people that ended up here just didn’t have that support.”
Rees brought up another large issue: a lack of support for youth from external, non-familial sources. More specifically, she expressed concern that she sees few homeless youth pursuing postsecondary education.
“The youth are looking at a housing first model. They’re looking for housing, that’s their main thing,” she said. “When you grow up, you’re thinking, ‘Well, I need a house and then everything else can follow.’ In order to get that house, they need to be working, and so school kind of takes the back burner when that happens.”
As a shelter geared toward young people, Covenant House tries to provide as much support as possible to help students in school. “Youth can be on full-time school plans while they’re here, they don’t need to be working,” said Rees.
Covenant House also provides access to tutors, study spaces, computers, and wireless internet connection. “We didn’t have WiFi… It took us a long time, we only got it recently. That was a big barrier for a lot of students living here,” remarked Montreuil.
Montreuil noted the distinction between secondary and postsecondary institutions, adding that he tends to communicate a lot with high schools, but university and college students usually need less of his support. “Now if there’s a problem, in terms of one of our youth has some health issues and they can’t attend school, then I’ll advocate for them.”
Violence, said Montreuil, is also a problem for the GTA homeless community more broadly. “It’s always a concern if there’s violence in the city or anything like that, that’s our top priority for our youth, trying to keep them safe” said Montreuil. “I don’t have the stats, but I feel like there’s a high level of violence right now.”
The fight for others’ basic human dignity
During a persistent extreme cold weather alert during the winter holidays, concerns for the city’s homeless population were raised, leading to newspaper headlines like, “Concerns mount for Toronto’s homeless as cold strains shelter capacities” from The Globe and Mail and “‘Miscommunication’ led to some homeless being turned away from shelter” from the Toronto Star.
But as anyone in the GTA or even in Canada more generally knows, it was not the worst winter people have experienced. Cathy Crowe, a ‘Street Nurse’ and Distinguished Visiting Practitioner at Ryerson University, has dedicated her life’s work to social justice activism for the city’s homeless.
“I work in a number of areas around health conditions, shelter conditions, and the bigger, longer-term issue of affordable housing,” said Crowe. She accomplishes her activism through “community organizing, community development, interfacing with City Hall, deputation, organizing groups to respond on issues, public education, advocacy, and working with the media.”
Crowe is not the only advocate for the city’s homeless who uses the media to get the message out. Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with the Lazarus Rising program at the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, does the same.
“I try to listen to what people without homes and trustworthy frontline workers are saying. I rely on my eight years of experience as a street pastor and any means of verification I can make use of to sort out what is most true and newsworthy,” said Hatlem. “After that, I try to put that information into social media, independent media, and major media in a way that will be persuasive to as many people as possible.”
“I, along with many others, am fighting for affordable, appropriate, dignified housing and day to day treatment for everyone who lives in Toronto,” he said.
Both Crowe and Hatlem understand the need for improved affordable housing. “The bigger, overarching campaign we’re fighting for is for a national housing program that would be similar to what we had up to 1993,” said Crowe. The National Affordable Housing Program in Canada was cut in the early 1990s. It was initially created in the 1970s to provide housing to low-income families.
“That’s in the long term, and we’re not there yet,” said Crowe. “In the meantime, we’re working on the local emergency, making sure that they have enough emergency shelters for all people who are homeless, and then at the same time making sure that the conditions in those shelters are adequate and spacious, clean, et cetera.”
Crowe’s focus has been on opening new facilities this winter. “Our big campaign has been to get more emergency shelters open, and they’ve actually got eight or nine that are actually opened… that now provide emergency shelter for an additional 750 people,” she said, citing the example of the Living Centre at Exhibition Place. Crowe is involved in a drive to lobby City Council to add 1,500 permanent beds to homeless centres.
Toronto Police Service (TPS) Detective Barry Radford recently said that TPS officers consider homelessness to be a “factor” in determining the seriousness of a missing person report. Radford said homelessness raises concerns of where to begin searches and the reliability of the information of the person’s last whereabouts.
In response to Radford’s statements, Hatlem said, “On the one hand, it’s a bit understandable. In practice, it seems it means that claims involving someone on the street are treated dramatically less seriously than missing person reports would be otherwise. That is a major problem.”
Hatlem cited the case of a young woman from Sudbury — a city a few hours north of Toronto — who was found dead in a garbage bag in Lake Ontario. Hatlem believes the woman in question, Kasandra Bolduc, had been homeless, which is why he thinks the police and the media did not pay the case the “attention it deserved.”
Crowe believes that incorporating education on homelessness and poverty in “all programs” is important to creating positive change for homeless youth. “I think it applies, really, to every program, whether it’s business, engineering, [or] environmental studies.”
Some Canadian universities have already taken steps to include homelessness in their curricula. Crowe mentioned a Ryerson course called “Homelessness in Canadian Society,” and she has been invited by multiple U of T instructors to speak in classes.
“Right now, U of T, Ryerson, OCAD, and York are partaking in a joint initiative around housing affordability for students, but to be honest I think what has to happen is universities need to prioritize the building of new student housing that is affordable.”
Crowe recalled being invited to U of T by a Muslim student group to give a talk. The group was also working on a project to make sandwiches and distribute them to the homeless.
“The brilliant thing was that instead of just walking around randomly handing it out to people, they gave it to a local agency near U of T, so that that agency would have the food to actually give to people, because they have the relationship with people,” she said.
Outside of student and university groups, much still needs to be addressed. “We as a society have failed and continue to fail at having an appropriate system for protecting kids from abuse and making sure that those who are abused are cared for in the best possible way,” said Hatlem.
More than 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night.
Bonnie Burstow is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her research and expertise centre primarily on community organizing, community policing, homelessness, and working with survivors of trauma.
Burstow said that Canada has given up “even a pretence” of long-term solutions, instead choosing temporary fixes. “We need to commit ourselves to a long term affordable housing strategy,” she wrote, contending that the country’s politicians have failed in their duty to protect the most vulnerable.
Crowe believes the current political climate of “neoliberalism” has seen “a lot of cuts to social programs.”
This failure is not new. Over the winter, debate raged in the city over whether to open the armouries for use as emergency homeless shelters, with many calling for Mayor John Tory and City Council to open them. Downtown Toronto is home to two armouries: one in Moss Park, the other at Fort York. On December 6, Ward 27 City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam put forward a motion to open the armouries, but it was voted down. On the advice of city staff, Tory eventually opened them up for emergency use.
“Our politicians opening up the armouries is tantamount to them acknowledging that… they have allowed a homelessness emergency to emerge,” said Burstow.
“Acknowledging this is tantamount to acknowledging that they have dismally failed a huge number of [the] most vulnerable [citizens].” She also pressed the “need to take seriously” why some prefer the streets to shelters, emphasizing the need for special women’s shelters and LGBTQ+ shelters to protect them from sexual violence in other shelters.
Hatlem echoed Burstow’s sentiments about the city’s failure. “In the past, when Toronto has had to ask for [the armouries] to be opened, it has been seen as an acknowledgement that the City’s housing and homelessness policy has failed,” he wrote. “The City has been reluctant to admit, and still hasn’t fully admitted, that what it has been doing for the last half dozen or more years is a rank failure.”
According to Crowe, Moss Park and Fort York had been opened four times in the years spanning the late 1990s to 2004. This time around, the federal defence ministry offered the facilities to the municipal government for emergency use. “I have no idea why the Mayor and other City Councillors were so resistant to opening the armouries this time,” she said.
“Things got worse and worse and worse through the winter, and it became very apparent, finally apparent, to the Mayor and City Council that they needed to open the armouries,” said Crowe. “It was a huge political hot potato.”
But it doesn’t have to be. The city needs to do better and rise above the controversies. “Creating permanent affordable housing needs to be a priority,” said Burstow. “In the context of this emergency that we have created, of course, we should be opening [and] making available the spaces that we have to [offer] shelter to homeless youth.”
If you are a youth in need of shelter and crisis services or know an individual who is in need of these services, know that there are supports available.
Covenant House can be reached via phone at (416) 593-4849 or toll-free at 1-800-435-7308. These lines are open 24/7.
If you are a youth who is being sexually exploited or trafficked, or if you are a concerned parent, email email@example.com or call the TPS Human Trafficking Enforcement Team’s 24/7 hotline at (416) 808-2222.
Additional homeless help is available through the City of Toronto by calling 311. You can also call Central Intake at (416) 338-4766 or 1-877-338-3398 for emergency shelter. Walk-in referrals are available from the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre at 129 Peter Street.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality