Lessons from an urban centre: COVID-19 mobilizes new collaboration in the City of Toronto, highlights what it would take to shift towards prevention of youth homelessness

Home|News & Updates, Research Spotlight|Lessons from an urban centre: COVID-19 mobilizes new collaboration in the City of Toronto, highlights what it would take to shift towards prevention of youth homelessness

In Toronto, Ontario, the COVID-19 pandemic placed an already-strained homelessness shelter system under greater pressure. With shelters forced to decrease their capacity by 35%, a group of youth-focused service providers worked with the City of Toronto to move 70 young people experiencing homelessness from shelters into a downtown hotel.

MtS Principal Investigators Dr. Amanda Noble and Dr. Naomi Thulien investigated how young people in downtown Toronto were faring in the pandemic over 2021. They listened to the experiences of youth using downtown shelters and youth participating in the hotel pilot. Their research project is titled Responding to youth homelessness in the midst of a pandemic: Shifting to collaborative, prevention-based services in a large urban setting”, and they are currently wrapping up their final report. 

Dr. Noble and Dr. Thulien also ask in their research how this collaboration between service providers and the City points to ways Toronto can shift towards a more prevention-based response to youth homelessness in the future. They found that while the pandemic has mobilized new opportunities for prevention on the municipal level, it is crucial that the provincial and federal government increase their support. “The pandemic showed us that [the emergency shelter system] is not a model that can be sustainable or that can help ward off a public health crisis,” said Dr. Noble.

We sat down with Dr. Noble to hear about her research team’s findings.

How have young people experiencing homelessness been faring throughout the pandemic, within the shelter system and in the hotel pilot?

“Originally I asked what impact COVID was having on young people experiencing homelessness,” Dr. Noble reflected. “But now I think I should have asked how COVID has further impacted them, because they’ve already been through so much.”

Toronto is the largest urban setting in Canada, and the country’s most expensive housing market. This lack of affordable housing in Toronto makes it particularly difficult for young people to exit homelessness sustainably. The pandemic put opportunities for young people to exit homelessness further on hold.

Dr. Noble’s team interviewed forty-five youth and thirty-one staff in the first phase of the research, then conducted surveys with seventy-six youth and nine-three staff in the second phase. The staff members who were interviewed and surveyed were from the collaborating organizations, including Eva’s Place, YMCA of Greater Toronto, Covenant House Toronto, and Turning Point Youth Services.

Dr. Noble noted that many youth her team spoke to cited loneliness, isolation and boredom throughout the pandemic. There was increased substance use, and mental health challenges became more acute. Some youth appreciated the respite from regular demands of life. For others, Dr. Noble recalled a young person sharing, “only in the sense of what tomorrow will look like. I’m just living day by day at this point, and that’s the shitty part. That’s what makes me feel like I’m a shelter kid and I hate that. I feel like I’m in a revolving door and COVID definitely made it spin a lot faster.”

“What we didn’t expect to be a major theme in the research was the tremendous impact the pandemic had on staff as well, which trickles down to the young people,” said Dr. Noble. “An increased need with decreased services can be quite catastrophic.”

Dr. Noble also cited how the effects of the pandemic on young people facing homelessness have not been equal. She shared how transgender youth were hit harder with the isolation, since many have chosen communities, and social distancing meant those communities could no longer gather in person. 

“There’s also a horrible lack of research on the experience of Black youth experiencing homelessness in Toronto,” Dr. Noble shared. “35% to 40% of the youth population experiencing homelessness identify as Black – this is not even including all persons of colour.” Making the Shift will be supporting to fill this research gap in a funded project on Black youth’s experience of homelessness and the role of prevention

The hotel pilot has shifted Toronto’s response to homelessness, but more support is needed

The hotel pilot itself was small in scope, and moved less than half of those who were in shelter. However, Dr. Noble believes it has changed the dynamics of how Toronto responds to youth homelessness. “Some of the shelters have begun working together more collaboratively,” Dr. Noble described. “The City of Toronto hired someone who has youth homelessness specifically within their portfolio, because youth do really require a unique approach.”

Dr. Noble felt the emergency of the pandemic has spotlighted the importance of prevention and sustainable exits from homelessness in Toronto. “I’m hoping the City has realized that overcrowded shelters are not the way to go in terms of responding.”

Dr. Noble noted a challenge with building on this momentum to increase prevention-based responses: the scale and complexity of players in a large urban setting. 

“There are so many stakeholders – where do we even start? For example, there are different subdivisions of the municipal government where one is about shelter and one is about housing. We have different school boards, as well. It’s a really big struggle.”

“Toronto needs support from the provincial and federal government. The pandemic made it clear that you can’t keep 10,000 people without a home and expect them to be safe from a pandemic, and that the only real solution is to shift towards more preventative services and supports. It’s actually costing us more money now to run the hotels and shelters.”

At the time of interviewing, the collaborative group had been interpreting the results to develop and prioritize the recommendations. The project ran from September 2020 to March 2022. 

Collaborators 

  • Covenant House Toronto
  • Eva’s Place
  • YMCA of Greater Toronto
  • Turning Point Youth Services
  • Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness
  • City of Toronto 
  • Lived Experience Lab
  • McMaster University (Co-Investigator)
  • University of Toronto (Co-Investigator)