UNECE establishes Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University


Approximately 150 million people are homeless and more than 1.8 billion people worldwide lack adequate and affordable housing. While levels of homelessness vary considerably across UNECE countries, finding sustainable solutions to ensure access to housing for all members of society remains a significant challenge. In 2020, the number of homeless people in the United States was approximately 580,000 and at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year.

To support the efforts of cities and national governments in fighting the challenges of homelessness, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has established the Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention, the first Geneva UN Charter Centre of Excellence in North America. The centre will be hosted by York University and co-directed by Faculty of Education Professor Stephen Gaetz, president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), and Melanie Redman of A Way Home Canada.

Delegates at the UNECE event
Delegates at the UNECE announcement event. Pictured above, from left, top row: Rhonda L. Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York University; Paola Deda, UNECE; Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada; and Judy Sgro, MPP Humber River-Black Creek. From left, bottom row: Stephen Gaetz, president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation, York University; Adam Vaughan, MP Spadina-Fort York and parliamentary secretary to the minister of families, children and social development

“The establishment of the UNECE Toronto Centre of Excellence at York is a testament to the global leadership of our researchers in creating innovative, nuanced and effective solutions to youth homelessness,” said President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton. “Under the guidance of our Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the new centre will bring together experts, policy-makers, and local and international community partners to make a positive global impact on this urgent social issue.”

The Toronto Centre of Excellence will build on the work of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which is based at York University. The observatory has conducted and mobilized homelessness research from across Canada and beyond for many years. It will assess the state of youth homelessness and prevention in the 56 member states of UNECE to help get youth homelessness and prevention onto public policy agendas.

“In the context of the pandemic, we can see the folly of ignoring the role of prevention in addressing major social and health crises,” said Gaetz. “The Centre of Excellence will help us mobilize our efforts to transform our response to homelessness to focus on prevention. Working with a range of international partners, the centre will provide a mechanism to collaborate internationally to understand how to effectively end homelessness, and youth homelessness in particular. This is a big opportunity.”

The new centre is part of a network of centres co-ordinated by UNECE with a mandate to engage in the exchange of research-based knowledge, experience and best practices to support implementation of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing. The charter also places importance in gathering data on homelessness using common international standards to ensure comparability between member states; making these data and national statistics publicly available to support policy-making, research and economic development; and making use of global and regional data repositories to support the policy-making process.

“Through this partnership, we aim to raise the visibility of homelessness on the political agenda throughout our region,” said UNECE executive secretary Olga Algayerova. “The COVID-19 pandemic has bluntly showed that we cannot live up to our commitment to leave no one behind in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if the human right to housing is not fully guaranteed for all.”

Designation as a Centre of Excellence will enable COH and A Way Home Canada to contribute to a broader effort to prevent homelessness among young people around the world through their Making the Shift project and related lessons learned. The research agenda of the observatory has been developed on the premise that realistic and practical solutions to homelessness exists and are possible, and that communities across Canada can achieve that end with the help of credible evidence, supportive policy and adequate funding frameworks.

“Another benefit of the Toronto Centre of Excellence is that it connects our work in Canada to realize housing as a human right to a broad network of international partners and researchers who are also grappling with this question,” said Redman, president of A Way Home Canada and co-director of the centre. “Our goal with the Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention is to support UNECE member states to have the knowledge they need to act boldly in the face of the injustice that is homelessness.”

UNECE will facilitate the work of the Centre of Excellence and the exchange of information, knowledge, and experience within the network as well as with relevant international and national organizations in the UNECE region, co-ordinating co-operation and exchange of experiences between the Centres of Excellence.