Many think the solution to helping homeless youth is simply providing youth shelters and a “roof-above-heads.” But that is not enough. Services such as employment training with placement allow homeless youth to escape poverty and homelessness in adulthood. These services give homeless youth the skills training, experience and social capital to help secure jobs and find their way out of the shelter system.

Those older than 18 require these supports because they are beyond secondary schooling but still need protection, guidance and training. According to Marche-Romae Williams-Wilson, Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity 2021 fellow, such programs are available in only a few Toronto youth shelters, despite their acknowledged success.

Access to this important type of programming should not be limited to only those at-risk youth “lucky” enough to be temporarily housed in those shelters offering those options. However, there are challenges to expanded delivery, such as streamlined resources for space, staffing resources and access to funding.

Overview of youth shelters and employment programs in Toronto

Toronto has the largest number of homeless people in the country and the largest shelter system. Of 63 shelter locations, the City of Toronto directly operates 10, while community agencies such as the YMCA and Covenant House Toronto operate the rest with city oversight.

These include nine youth-only agency-operated shelters, covering those aged 13 to 24. Data from the city’s 2021 street needs assessment shows that youth represent 11 per cent of the homeless population in shelters. If extended to people aged 25-29 years old, this increases to 19 per cent. Toronto’s shelter system provides both emergency and transitional shelters. Emergency shelter stays are available for three months maximum to anyone experiencing homelessness. Transitional shelters provide specialized services for up to 18 months by referral only to help prepare clients to move into housing.

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Transitional shelters offer support programming, including employment services and training. For unaccompanied older youth, such programming is essential because the secondary school system does not cover them. Country-wide statistics from the 2016 youth homelessness national survey indicated that around half of homeless youth were not in employment, education or training. Sixty-five per cent did not finish high school, and only 21 per cent held a high school diploma. Given that high school-level education is the minimum requirement for many jobs, helping shelter youth mitigate such under-qualification is imperative.

However, youth shelters are near full capacity, which is likely affecting service delivery. Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration department figures from June of this year show that occupancy rates for the bed-based single emergency and transitional programs for youth were at 97 per cent each.

As well, the content of employment services in youth shelters is not uniform. The offerings range from employment and/or life skills training programs, specific skills (cooking programs) to resume writing and job-search preparation.

Programming is not available at every transitional youth shelter. Although youth from one shelter can “drop-in” for specialized programs, capacity constraints inhibit this. As a result, there is unequal access for transitional shelter youth.

Additionally, only one program, Cooking for Life in the Covenant House youth shelter, has a job-placement component. This addresses a significant employment-related shortfall that homeless youth suffer – relevant networks for employment.

Cooking for Life: A service model       

Launched in 2011, the Cooking for Life program trains shelter youth for jobs in the accommodation and food services sector. This is one of the top two sectors that hire the most youth (15-24).

The program teaches hard skills such as customer service and cooking, and soft skills such as time management, teamwork and accountability. Most importantly, it guarantees a placement after completion in one of the restaurants with which Covenant House has a relationship. Eighty-five per cent of all youth who completed the program have gone on to secure employment within the industry.

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The success of the Cooking for Life program speaks to the effectiveness of these programs in helping shelter youth gain the skills and work experience needed to secure employment. Unfortunately, synchronized offering of such placement programs across Toronto’s shelters is unavailable for mostly structural and systemic reasons.

Problems limiting employment training and placement provision in youth shelters

One structural problem preventing the widespread implementation of these programs is a lack of space and facilities. The Cooking for Life program operates in a fully stocked kitchen on Covenant House’s Gerrard Street Toronto premises.

Youth shelters run by other service providers have neither the space nor the specialized facilities to operate such a program because many shelters operate in old buildings, making it difficult to refurbish or repurpose them without significant cost or affecting shelter residents. This limits program and skills training access to those youth housed in new buildings.

A systemic issue preventing similar employment training and placement programs from being implemented widely throughout Toronto’s shelters is staffing. For a program such as Cooking for Life to be created, an agency needs to conceptualize, organize and administer it. Unfortunately, the high turnover rate of employees working in shelters makes it difficult to implement new programs because there often are not enough staff to see the process through.

There are many reasons for staffing problems. Shift work is viewed as undesirable and there is a perception that there are few career advancement opportunities, along with poor working conditions, poor wages and safety concerns.

Funding streams for shelters are determined by the city year-over-year, and there is no guarantee a shelter’s programs will see continued funding. Because all youth-only shelters in Toronto are agency-operated, there is a lack of program uniformity. Further, the placement component is absent in all programs delivered except the Covenant House placement program, which is funded by federal wage subsidies. Different agencies have varying levels and sources of funding for their respective employment programs, which hampers co-ordination and standardization.

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The implementation of training and placement programs in youth shelters requires more streamlined resources including regular funding, space and addressing staffing issues. This could be ameliorated by changing the budgeting model from an annual basis to a five-year model.

As well, the Toronto youth shelter system’s funding and operational model should be adjusted to give the municipality more direct control. This encourages integration of other city youth training and placement services within shelters, giving shelter youth more certainty and access to these programs regardless of the overseeing agency.

This may place a bigger administrative and financial burden on city and shelter staff, particularly in terms of developing connections with employers for placement. This may mean that wage subsidies modelled after the federal subsidies for Covenant House programs may be required.

There are no easy fixes to this, but improving and synchronizing access to such practical training and placement programs for Toronto’s homeless shelter youth is a start.

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Chinweizu Okeke
Chinweizu Okeke works as a research associate at the Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity, focusing on youth labour, education and overall economic development. Twitter @okekeFC
Olivia Van Alebeek
Olivia Van Alebeek is a student at the University of Toronto where she is completing her undergraduate degree.

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