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Brampton gets closer to first permanent youth shelter as economy poses unique challenges

For years, Peel and its area municipalities have known emergency shelter space dedicated to youth is significantly lacking. The current affordability crisis has exacerbated the already bleak situation a growing number of young people find themselves in.

According to the 2016 Without a Home report, the first Canadian-wide study of young people experiencing homelessness, youth aged 13-24 made up roughly 20 percent of the country’s population. Between 35,000 and 40,000 young people experience homelessness each year in Canada, and 6,000 to 7,000 on any given night.

In Peel, these youth in need have few places to turn. As previously reported by The Pointer, the Region’s shelter systems are critically strained, with shelters operating at 270 percent capacity. The need for emergency shelter services and housing supports has outpaced capacity, exacerbated by the number of asylum seekers arriving in the Region. It has led to being unable to keep up with its policy on turning no one away.

Increased investment in emergency housing is desperately needed in the region, and in Brampton, plans for the first-ever permanent youth shelter facility in the city are finally underway.

“Peel Region, like many jurisdictions, is experiencing homelessness and a lack of affordable housing crisis,” Daphna Nussbaum, Program Coordinator and Analyst at Peel Alliance to End Homelessness, told The Pointer in an email. “Many homeless youth in Peel do not have access to safe, affordable housing.”

It is not simply about building more shelter space, but building shelter space that can cater to the unique needs of people within the homeless demographic.

“Youth face different challenges than adults and should not be put in similar shelters, Nussbaum said. “Their needs are different, the supports they require are more targeted and they are in a period of growth and are likely to connect better with their peers.” She said having a shelter specifically designed for youth “means that youth can work directly with support staff equipped to address the issues that homeless youth face, such as health, housing needs, employment, and education.”

In Peel, 41 percent of people who were facing chronic homelessness in 2021 first became homeless as a youth (16-24) compared with 47 percent who were adults (25-54) when they were first homeless, according to the Region’s 2021 Homelessness Point-In-Time Count Results.

The new facility proposed in Brampton will offer 80 beds for youth and will replace the existing temporary shelter in the city that is run through the lease of a motel. The new building will offer programming geared to transitioning young people from the shelter system into permanent housing within a month's time.

Nikima Leslie, Program Manager at REST Centres, told The Pointer that youth’s experience with homelessness is different from adults because they lack life experience and support systems to navigate their situation. According to the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness report from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness published in 2016, on top of facing “economic deprivation and a lack of secure housing,” many are going through changes in critical developmental areas of their lives. “As a result, they may not have the resources, resilience, education, social supports or life skills necessary to foster a safe and nurturing transition to adulthood and independence,” the report states.

They are “much more vulnerable,” Leslie said, highlighting that a serious issue involving homeless youth is that they can be targeted by adults who may prey on them for their housing insecurity. “It does require a different approach to youth than adults,” she said. They can fall victim to illegal activity, like human trafficking, she said, noting that although homeless adults also face this issue, youth often are more vulnerable in these situations. A delegation to the City of Brampton late last year from the Peel Children’s Aid Society explained how youth in Peel are being targeted by traffickers.

“The financialization of housing along with years of underfunding including a lack of investments in social housing and support services by all levels of government have contributed to the current situation facing the homeless population including those who identify as homeless youth,” Nussbaum told The Pointer. “All levels of government including the local municipalities must prioritize access to deeply affordable housing with support for this vulnerable population along with addressing some of the other areas that contribute to youth homelessness including proper funding for mental health and addiction support, investments in programs that divert and prevent youth going into homelessness, partnering with landlords, more training and employment opportunities and addressing the issues and gaps within the child [welfare] system.”

Nussbaum shared that the main causes of homelessness for youth are child abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), neglect, family conflict, violence or rejection, parental substance abuse, mental health or addiction challenges, and homophobia. She said that many young individuals cannot acquire financial means or skills to live independently, which can lead to discrimination or exploitation.

“Homeless youth are living independently of parents or caregivers but lack the means to acquire a safe and stable residence,” she said. She also highlighted how they are often individuals who have gone through the child welfare system and that because of instability and other challenges, “homeless youth are lacking the support system that others their age may have as well as the means to navigate that world.”

The Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness report states young people are also more prone to avoiding systems that serve those facing homelessness “out of fear of authorities,” and face barriers to accessing services due to their legal status as children (for those youth not considered legal adults—”youth homelessness” as defined by the report applies to individuals 13-24 years of age).

In her experience working at REST Centres, Leslie said some homeless youth are also unaware that there are supports available specifically designed for them. “A lot of our youths don't even understand what some of these service providers are.”

The proposed permanent youth shelter in Brampton will offer those aged 16 to 24 years “a safe space, housing search assistance, family reunification supports, employment services, and programming,” according to the Region of Peel. It will provide its residents supports to “live independently and break the cycle of homelessness.”

A regional webpage dedicated to the proposal states the new facilities will also offer referrals to other services, including mental health and addictions counselling. Residents of the facility will also receive three meals per day and snacks, have access to healthcare and harm reduction services and will be provided bus tickets.

“We have a tremendous need, not just in Brampton, but in all municipalities across the country to make sure that we have places and spaces where we can gather people who have a serious and important need,” Brampton Councillor of Wards 1 and 5, Paul Vicente, said at a January 15 Planning and Development Committee meeting.

He said that “we as a country, as a nation, as a municipality, have an obligation to help them.” Arcadis, on behalf of The Regional Municipality of Peel, submitted an application to amend the Official Plan and Zoning By-law. It sought to amend the Official Plan by requesting the removal of the subject lands from the Open Space designation and placing the lands under the Communities and Residential designations, as well as removing the subject lands from the Valleyland/Watercourse Corridor and Woodland and Primary Valleyland designations and redesigning the lands to from Low Density Residential 2 to a Special Policy Area to permit Non-Market Housing uses, which the staff report identifies are “defined as affordable housing that is owned or subsidized by government, a non-profit society, or a housing cooperative, including emergency shelters, women’s shelters, youth shelters, family shelters and transitional housing (Schedule 45(a)).” A motion to receive the report and adopt its amendments carried at the meeting, moving plans the City’s first permanent youth shelter facility a step forward.

Leslie told The Pointer that in seeing some of the details of the proposal, she feels there are a few areas that raise questions for her, such as the expectation that youth on average will stay for only one month.

“That’s insufficient time for a youth to move from a state of homelessness or housing insecurity into independence,” she said, sharing that REST Centres provides youth up to two years for that transition. “What we would advocate for is more of a transitional space for youth.” She said a more long-term form of support is what is needed to truly get youth out of a state of homelessness and that she recognizes the need for emergency shelter facilities, but said to “make a real impact, you have to think transitional.”

“[Y]outh require supportive and transitional housing models with wrap-around supports for them to move onto successful independent living,” Nussbaum also said.

Youth homelessness is often characterized as “invisible” or "hidden,” given that young people often stay temporarily with friends or relatives before they find themselves in emergency shelters or having to sleep in uninhabitable locations outdoors or in abandoned buildings. According to the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness report, youth go through “multiple family ruptures and multiple episodes of living outside the home” like this, and that when it comes to youths pathway into homelessness, it is “neither linear, nor experienced as a single event.”

“If you look through Brampton, people would not really appreciate youth homelessness, because really, how many youth do you see sleeping out there if you drive by at night or at the highway corners, or wherever? We’re really not seeing youth,” Leslie said, explaining that youth more often have at least one person who they can go to for a temporary place to stay. “They might be able to go to a friend’s home tonight and then another friend tomorrow,” she said, sharing that sometimes their hosts will not even know the youth is at risk of homelessness because they may think the youth is just crashing for the night. She said hidden homelessness is a problem in Peel when it comes to youth.

Access to housing is a huge barrier for young people who have to get out of unsafe conditions at home or escape abusive family members, and youth who are transgender and LGBTQ2S are “more likely to leave home at an early age,” according to the Without a Home report. “These youth are also much more likely to report parental conflict and childhood physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse as contributing factors to their homelessness,” the report states.

Prices of housing on the market are at record highs, yet Leslie shared that for youth who have to navigate this housing market at such a young age and with little to no support and knowledge to do so, it becomes even more difficult to secure a place to live. She said one way to address this is to create incentives for landlords to bring rent prices down. “We can understand why a landlord can't adjust because at the end of the day, you have your mortgage, right? So that's something that's a barrier for us,” she said.

“Representatives need to really look at incentivizing support in the community,” she said. “The economic climate, right now, landlords are feeling the crunch…However, if we really want to end homelessness, and again, reduce the need for shelter system[s]...we really have to take a decisive approach. How will we engage homeowners to be more responsive to renting to our youth? What are some of the barriers that we will be reducing?” she said. “If you are looking for [a] credit score from a youth, if you’re always looking for [an] employment letter from a youth, how many youths are going to be able to provide that?” She said that many youth haven’t started their lives yet, still only in their early or late teens, and said there is a need to “reduce some of these barriers and provide the relevant support system for our landlords to then be comfortable” with renting to them.

“We are seeing too many youth exiting children services without a plan, without money, needing continued supports,” Leslie said. “If we really want to break the cycle of poverty, of homelessness, of welfare dependency, no youth exiting care should be struggling to financially survive, not especially when they have been ‘in the system’ for a prolonged period of time,” she said, saying she believes restructuring services should be “a key point for our policy makers to consider.”

The proposal for a permanent youth shelter facility in Brampton entails a four storey building with construction anticipated to begin in late 2024 and estimated to last for two years, according to the Region.

Email: hafsa.ahmed@thepointer.com

Twitter: @_hafsaahmed

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Hafsa Ahmed, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer