A group of youths in Regent Park is working to tackle barriers that young people face in accessing support programs in the Toronto neighbourhood, and has launched a crisis care fund to help them.
Youth Empower Youth (YEY) formed just before the start of the pandemic to try to identify gaps that prevented youth from tapping into available programs, as well as what resources they wanted to see more of.
"We realized that there are a lot of community programs and services that exist but aren't very well known by the residents, especially the youth and the community," said Fatheha Rahim, a youth lead with YEY.
"And so we wanted to figure out why that was the case."
Since its formation, the group has launched initiatives like a women's self-defence class, art programs and a pilot project to create safe spaces for young people.
As the Regent Park revitalization continues and the neighbourhood undergoes massive physical changes, the group says its work to ensure youth are engaged, and able to easily tap into resources they need, is of increasing importance. YEY was born out of the Regent Park Social Development Plan whose stakeholders receive funding from the City of Toronto. YEY got its money from one of the working groups under the social development plan, The Regent Park Safety Network.
Crisis Care Fund
To find out what youth wanted more of, the group conducted surveys and focus groups in collaboration with George Brown College.
"So from the 350 youth that participated, we were able to create ... a one pager of the research findings. And from that we're able to see what youth really wanted," said Raisa Chowdhury, also a youth lead with YEY.
One of the issues identified by the group was a lack of funding for youth workers trying to help young people in crisis.
"Expenses are coming out of their own pockets. And because of that, there are a lot of things that the youth need … but they can't necessarily get it," said Rahim.
YEY created an online portal where youth workers and community leaders can apply for a one-time $500 grant to help a young person manage their crisis. It's a process that doesn't identify the youth and the funding can be used for food, transportation or temporary safe accommodation, among other things.
Rahim uses a youth experiencing a mental health crisis as an example.
"A youth worker could simply tap into the fund and take them out for dinner and kind of chat with them and ... just be there for them, so that they could have someone to talk to," she said
The group says there's been high engagement in their initiatives — from the crisis care fund to its interactive map that serves as a resource guide for youth.
Chowdhury says the population of young people is growing in Regent Park as the revitalization project continues.
"Because there's so much changing, youth are the ones that are going to stay in this community for future years. And I think it's important for them to just make these connections and just know what's going on in the community."
Youth helping youth
The city has provided $2.5 million to the Regent Park Social Development Plan, spread out over five years at $500,000 annually. YEY is funded out of that money. But tapping into funding for initiatives for young people can be challenging, says a former youth lead with the group.
"There was a process, there were a lot of other great projects that wanted to be funded as well … but we were able to get it through the social development plan and through that we saw the great outcome of this project.," said Isa Ali, now a community revitalization assistant with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC).
Ali says though it was difficult to launch a youth engagement program during the pandemic, in other ways it prompted some young people to push for what they needed.
"I would say [it was] a blessing in disguise because a lot of youth wanted to be involved and do something during the pandemic. And this really gave them an opportunity to go out and channel their voice, get new programs and speak for what they need in the community as well."
The work of YEY has impressed staff at TCHC, who say they're grateful for the work they continue to do in the community.
"This is a proof point for why you should give youth the tools and then the position to go and lead," said Robin Smith, a spokesperson for TCHC.
"It's really important to keep those young people connected, engaged with each other — giving them a sense of place and a space where they can just be involved and start to ask for what it is that they want in this revitalization."