Study of York Region youth shows homelessness not just a Toronto problem

homeless youth sitting in the streets
Stephen Gaetz
Stephen Gaetz

Long seen as a big city problem, youth homelessness is as real in suburban York Region as it is in Toronto and demands a coordinated, systemic response, according to a new study published Nov. 27.

The report Leaving Home: Youth Homelessness in York Region draws on research conducted with 60 young people who have experienced homelessness in York Region, as well as interviews with service agencies.

It is part of a joint project by United Way York Region, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Knowledge Mobilization (KMb) Unit at York University, focused on finding new ways to respond collaboratively to address homelessness among youth in the sprawling region north of Toronto.

With more than one million residents in nine municipalities, York Region has a range of public, non-profit and charitable programs, systems and services for low-income and homeless individuals and families. However, in spite of some excellent programming for young people, many youths who are homeless are forced to leave because they and their families are not getting the supports they need, the study found.

“When young people leave their communities and move to Toronto or some other big city, they become even more at risk of victimization or exploitation, and their health declines,” says York University Professor Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. “Our research shows there were multiple missed opportunities for intervention. Some youth needed more family support to address conflict or abuse, some needed more support from school and others needed better access to mental health services and addictions treatment.”

Daniele Zanotti, CEO of York Region United Way, said it is critical to provide a network of services in every neighbourhood, so young people can access support where and when they need it.

“We have many excellent service agencies and frontline programs,” said Zanotti. “We need an integrated system approach − to prevent youth from becoming homeless, stop the flow of young people from institutional care into homelessness, and intervene early to help them remain in their communities. By working together, we can make York Region a national leader in the prevention of youth homelessness.”

Key recommendations in the report include:

  • Develop a working group to address youth homelessness with participation from the education sector, child protection, mental health, youth justice, all levels of government and the homelessness sector, mainstream service providers and York Region United Way.
  • Align York Region’s plan with the emerging provincial government strategy to end youth homelessness.
  • Engage the York Region District School Board and York Catholic District School Board in an early prevention initiative.
  • Support “harm reduction” approaches rather than “abstinence only” when working with young people at risk of homelessness.
  • Increase young people’s access to and awareness of support and services related to employment, education, affordable housing and mental health supports.