Toronto shelter steps up to meet mental health needs for youth

Youth Without Shelter (YWS) offers emergency accommodations, as well as a Stay-In-School program for people age 16 to 24 in Toronto's west-end.

But the pandemic forced them to shut down 20 of their 53 beds, just at a time when the need was rising.

“Already 86 per cent of homeless youth in Canada were reporting substantial amounts of anxiety and depression,” YWS Executive Director Steve Doherty told CTV News Toronto. “And this has only added to it.”

The organization also cites several other disturbing statistics, compiled by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Young people age 13 to 24 make up 20 per cent of Canada’s homeless population, and those homeless youth are three times more likely to develop mental health problems than kids from a more stable home environment.

During the pandemic, suicidal ideation among youth increased 36 per cent. Incidents of self-harm rose by 25 per cent. And attempts at suicide went up by 15 per cent.

Doherty says unemployment because of the pandemic caused many more youth to lose their homes.

But Director of Operations, Ben Omoregie, says despite having fewer beds, the staff doubled their efforts to increase mental health supports and housing assistance.

In fact, the shelter set a record for the number of youth that they helped to find housing.

“We helped them out with subsidies from the City of Toronto and other support programs that were available in the community. And what they couldn’t do, we also did.” says Doherty, citing their food bank, clothing bank and employment services.

17-year old Amna Malik was one of those who turned to YWS during the pandemic. She came to stay there in July 2021 after experiencing troubles at home.

But at YWS, she found the stability she needed, as well as access to a therapist, homework support and more.

“Much better” is how she describes her life now, as she works toward competing her high school diploma. “It gave me the consistency I needed.”

The teen says talking has always come easily to her but she says conversations, like those promoted by Bell Let’s Talk Day, have been a form of healing for her.

And Doherty says “It’s not just let’s talk, but let’s listen. And anything that gets those discussions moving forward and can bring forward talk about mental health without the stigma attached to it, it can’t do anything but help.