The statistics are appalling, however one looks at them. Toronto has Canada’s largest homeless population, and over 10,000 of them are under the age of 24. Faced with chronic unemployment, physical abuse, and a suicide rate almost 100 times the national average, they are one of Canada’s most at-risk—and least cared-for—demographics.
But just a short subway ride from the St. George campus, a grassroots organization has been quietly trying to help these youth find some stability in their lives. Eva’s Initiatives, which started as a basic street-shelter in 1994, is currently one of the most innovative NGOs in Canada. U of T’s Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) invited Eva’s Initiatives to give a presentation at its January 28th meeting.
At the presentation, the innovative elements of the program were highlighted. Anyone between 16 and 24 who enters Eva's offices is allowed to stay for up to one year. Employment and housing are guaranteed upon leaving. Staff-members at Eva’s give immediate counseling to all attendants—and their definition of "counseling" includes everything from harm-reduction to how to manage relationships.
“Nearly 40 per cent of these kids have mental illnesses,” says Marie MacCormack, Director of Development with Eva’s Initiatives. “And there’s nothing for them—no supportive housing, no counseling … . They start to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.”
For the NGO’s coordinators, Eva’s is just trying to compensate for a glaring oversight in provincial policies. They point out that Ontario does not have a single substantive program for at-risk youth. At 16, one is required to sign out of foster-care. Most adult welfare programs don’t begin till 25. Anyone in between is quite literally left to fend for themselves.
MacCormack adds that Eva’s Initiatives is doing the best it can for such a susceptible demographic. But the program receives only minimal funding from the Toronto City Council. Every year, it must come up with nearly $4 million on its own. Consequently, It is unable to support any trained clinical staff.
“We get 16, 17 year-olds with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” says MacCormack. “They need treatment. But we can’t help, hospitals won’t have them, and CAMH [the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] is only for adults. Where are they supposed to go?”
Members of Eva’s Initiatives have been appealing to the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Health for years—to little avail. Without any government infrastructure, there is concern that youth homelessness will quickly snowball into a provincial crisis.
Both GSU executives and Eva’s spokespersons felt that U of T could play a major role in tackling youth homelessness. Wendy Howze, the organization’s manager, hoped that student groups and faculties like Social Work and Public Health would be able to provide at least some of the support, which is short in coming from the provincial government.