Responding to Youth Homelessness in the Midst of a Pandemic: Shifting to Collaborative, Prevention-Based Services in a Large Urban Setting

Amanda Noble, PhD, Manager, Research & Evaluation, Covenant House Toronto

Naomi Thulien, NP-PHC, PhD, Investigator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions | Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael’s Hospital | Unity Health Toronto

What is this research about?

This research project was designed during a period of concurrent crises; across Canada, nearly 6000 youth experience homelessness on a given night. The COVID-19 pandemic also presented a serious threat to the health and safety of youth experiencing homelessness and the workers who serve them.

Given the potential for future pandemics, it is important to not only understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth experiencing homelessness and staff in Toronto, but also the ways the sector contributed to addressing the crisis. The aim is to generate recommendations to prevent youth homelessness, inform future pandemic responses, and shift the response to youth homelessness in Toronto towards more collaborative and preventative initiatives.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted this study in two phases. First, researchers interviewed 45 youth and 31 staff from four downtown shelters/hotels for youth experiencing homelessness in Toronto. They also conducted seven interviews with stakeholders, including representatives from municipal governments and local advocates. Here, the aim was to learn more about their experiences during the pandemic and insights into preventing youth homelessness.

In the second phase, surveys were administered to 93 staff and 76 youth across the four agencies. Youth were asked about their experiences during the pandemic (such as mental/physical health, boredom, loneliness, sleep, and discrimination) and their preferences for housing. Staff, however, were asked about their experiences with organizational support, burnout, mental/physical wellbeing, and their reflections on collaboration and prevention initiatives in the sector.

What did the researchers find?

  1. This research revealed the wide-ranging effects of the pandemic on youth experiencing homelessness, including challenges in obtaining basic needs, employment, housing, as well as negative consequences for mental health, isolation, boredom, and substance abuse. Moreover, it revealed how staff serving youth experiencing homelessness face heightened stress, worsened mental wellbeing, and higher levels of burnout.
  2. Strikingly, several youth subpopulations – such as Black youth, newcomer youth, and 2SLGBTQ+ – reported disproportional and distinct challenges during the pandemic.
  3. Staff interviews highlighted the role of collaboration between agencies and the city in the pandemic response. Survey findings indicated that, while the majority felt that there is much to be gained by increased collaboration across the sector, there is more work to do to build stronger collaboration and trust.
  4. Moreover, youth and staff shared how the pandemic emphasized the need to shift to a prevention-oriented response to youth homelessness. They identified a range of housing, family-based, and upstream supports to promote stable housing for youth, and a general preference among youth for subsidized and independent housing arrangements.

How can you use this research?

Readers can expect to learn more about the experiences of youth experiencing homelessness and the staff who served them during the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the distinct challenges faced by several subpopulations of youth.

Service providers, policymakers, and stakeholders can use these recommendations to improve support for youth experiencing homelessness – both within the pandemic and in general – with the ultimate goals of preventing homelessness, improving access to stable housing, and reducing inequities for youth subpopulations.