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Youth homelessness on the rise

Lutherwood’s Safe Haven program, as well as OneROOF’s expansion are helping house displace youth [Justine Fraser]

Woolwich and the other townships are not immune to the increase in youth homelessness being seen in Waterloo Region. Organizations such as oneROOF, which offers warm meals, shelter beds and support services for people under the age of 25, often see young people from the rural areas who have nowhere else to go.

“We have seen an increase or an influx of youth coming from more rural type settings,” said Sandy Dietrich-Bell, the CEO of oneROOF Youth Services. “I don’t think family dysfunction or family breakdown is specific to large urban centers – it happens everywhere.

“In previous years, it’s been a little lesser known because in rural communities if a youth doesn’t know what to do, they’ll sometimes stay in a bad situation longer than they should just out of not knowing or not feeling that they have any alternative. The more that they’re educated about the support centre out there, the more willing that they are to seek those supports. Ideally, it would be fantastic if there were supports available to them right in their own town, but that’s just not the case.”

Dietrich-Bell has seen not just a rise in numbers but a rise in complexity of issues facing the young people coming to them.

“Over the years, we’ve had youth homelessness when there’s been a large disruption at home or some issues over drug use – the odd time it would be due to abuse or violence. Now, we’re seeing that the majority of the young people that we support, there’s extreme violence, lots of mental health issues, lots of drug-related issues; a lot more sexual abuse, trafficking. So, the youth that are coming to us now, are facing much greater barriers. They’re a lot more vulnerable. They’re a lot more angry. They’re a lot more scared, and they’re a lot more disengaged. They’re really feeling like no one cares and there’s no community that they belong to,” she explained.

The region’s manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention, Chris McEvoy, has noticed a rising number of youth accessing services over the last couple of years. He notes the region’s main goal is prevention and trying to keep youth with family or friends instead of in shelters. 

“Homelessness is on the rise, both in terms of periodic experience or chronic experience; youth are no exception,” explained McEvoy, noting that there is no part of the population where they aren’t seeing increases.

“We work closely with housing services and providers to create a system of supports – it’s a coordinated response from experts  but prevention is our main goal.”

The pandemic has only amplified the situation as many of the youth felt more isolated with fewer places to go. The staff at oneROOF educated the youth about PPE and social distancing and helped to keep them healthy over the last 20 odd months.

“Any additional stressor like that just adds to the already pile of stress that these young people are feeling, and it just exacerbates the mental health issues that they’re already facing and the sense of disengagement and just fear about what the future holds for them,” said Dietrich-Bell.

The youth service can see up to 500 people or more a year, estimated Dietrich-Bell. Now in its 33rd year, oneROOF is expanding its facilities to offer a new supportive housing building that will help to home at least 44 youth in the region. Purchasing their neighbouring building on top of the construction of an adjoining facility on Sheldon Avenue in Kitchener, through funds provided by the City of Kitchener and a philanthropic donor, oneROOF hopes to open their new building later this winter.

“The new building is really an addition to the supports that we already have in place. One of the big gaps that we were noticing was housing. We all know that there’s a shortage of available housing for everyone, but it’s a bigger barrier for young people because landlords aren’t comfortable renting to young people, let alone young people that are experiencing homelessness,” said Dietrich-Bell.

She also noted that other agencies noticed the work they did with youth would get sidelined by a lack of stable housing.

“We thought instead of putting Band-Aids on the situation, let’s really tackle it by opening our own supportive housing building where we can be the landlord. We can move young people in, they can have 24/7 support to learn the life skills, the budgeting skills, how to engage in a building with other tenants and how to cook,” she said.

“This population is coming from an environment where they didn’t have necessarily the adults in their lives to teach them those very basic and fundamental skills to get them into the adult world successfully. So that’s the goal of this building, to give them stable housing and then work with them to teach them the skills that they’ll need to transition into independent living. You really can’t expect the young person to think about going back to school or getting help for their drug addiction or getting out of the sex trade when they have no place to live.”

OneROOF’s mission is to support youth between the ages of 12 to 25. The shelter and supportive housing will be for youth aged 16 to 25, both male and female.

In the past year multiple charities from Woolwich have raised funds, items or donations for oneROOF after seeing the need themselves. The Woolwich Community Lions, for instance, recently raised winter clothing and other items to give to the shelter. Earlier in the year, oneROOF was the recipient for the 100 Woolwich Women Who Care quarterly fund.

“We did receive funds from the 100 Women Who Care out of Woolwich. I did a presentation there and we were the grantee, so that was fantastic. The money that we received from them is going directly to our build – that donation of $10,000 paid to furnish one of the units in this 44-unit building, so the youth will move in with all the appliances they need, all the furniture that they need, linens, bedding,” said Dietrich-Bell, appreciative for the community’s support over the pandemic.

“Our agency, we’re still very grassroots, we don’t have the support of provincial or federal dollars on any sort of regular basis. So we rely really heavily on community donations and groups like the Lions and 100 Women Who Care and just individual people to literally keep our doors open. We’re always so thankful when we get considered versus some of the larger agencies.”

Anyone looking to donate can go to their website, www.oneroof.org, to see a full list of what they need for their shelter expansion, as well as to donate to the cause.

“One youth coming through is too many in my head,” said Lindsey White, program supervisor at Lutherwood’s Safe Haven program. The program is the only space in the region for youth under 16.

Located downtown Kitchener, Safe Haven helps youth aged 12 to 17, and is also noticing an increase in people using their services over the last couple years.  Schools in the region will refer youth in need to Lutherwood, but as many schools were in lockdown, many problems were going unnoticed. Now that’s increasing again as kids have been back in class.

“You’re in school and your supports are in the school, and then you don’t get to see your support for a year, that can wear on you and we’re seeing more mental health in the youth that we are working with.”

In a year, Safe Haven will see some 120 youth accessing their services, which White said is continuing to increase.

“Our main goal is prevention. We try to have youth, if they do come in and there’s a crisis within the home, we’re immediately talking about discharge and we’re immediately trying to put supports in place so that the youth can return home if it’s safe to do so. We’re trying to prevent them from becoming chronically homeless,” said White. “There are youth, 16- and 17-year-olds, who aren’t able to go home and so we do support them in finding independent living options.”

Some of Lutherwood’s youth who can’t go home, will be refered to other youth services where they can stay for longer periods, such as oneROOF. Lutherwood’s Safe Haven program has 10 beds in their shelter in Kitchener. The average stay at Safe Haven can range from two to 10 days, with some coming back multiple times in a year.

“There’s not data right now to specifically indicate the reasons why we have a lot more referrals coming in. There just seems to be a lot of families in some sort of crisis right now. Every family and every youth have different needs and so, it’s just being able to support them and what they need in that moment – we are here to have that safe space.”

Currently Lutherwood has a Comfy Cozy campaign where the community can donate warm clothing, hygiene products and gift cards to give to the youth accessing their services over the holidays. For more information, contact foundation@lutherwood.ca .

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