Just as the sun cracks above the horizon, 17-year-old Amna begins her trek to school.
She boards a TTC bus in North Etobicoke, the first of three. If transit moves seamlessly, the route takes about an hour and a half. It’s usually closer to two hours — a reality that prompted her guidance counsellor to ask for understanding from her teachers if she hustles in late.
Amna doesn’t go to school every day. That was another negotiation. She makes the commute to the Brampton high school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, squeezing in presentations and the warmth of her friends’ laughter.
“Being in that environment just lifts you up,” she says.
The other days, she studies online, logging on from her home of nearly a year — a Toronto shelter for homeless youth between 16 and 24, which has a program aimed at keeping those in high school and post-secondary school on track to graduate.
Amna was 16 when she fled a bad situation at home, sleeping at a friend’s house for a week and then finding a temporary bed at a Peel shelter. A few days later, she was relocated to the shelter in Etobicoke.
“I was just so confused, and everything was crazy,” she said, “because I’d never really lived by myself.”
Today, she’s among hundreds of youth in Toronto who are facing adolescence and homelessness at once — a population that’s swollen far larger than it was five years ago.
In the city’s family and youth shelters, there were roughly 145 kids aged 16 and 17 alone on April 1 — more than twice the number staying overnight on the same date five years ago. That number doesn’t include those crashing on couches out of public view, and has put the system near capacity. Last month, the night before Amna spoke with the Star, 222 of the city’s 231 emergency youth beds were filled.
It’s a delicate moment in time for all of them, says youth homelessness expert Dr. Sean Kidd, chief of psychology for Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Falling into homelessness at such a young age, he says, can trigger a vicious cycle with nearly a third of people facing homelessness in the city last spring saying they’d first lost their home as a child or youth.
Education is a major determinant of the opportunities someone will be allotted later in life, Kidd explained, but too few shelter facilities in Toronto can offer the same supports Amna has to keep on track. Keeping a young person in school was about more than classwork, he said; it was also a chance to hold tight to connections and supportive relationships around them.
“That gets harder, as people get further on.”
School, for Amna, has been a safe place. It was a respite when she struggled with life at home.
She was adamant about staying at her previous school, accepting the gruelling commute in exchange for comfort. When chatting on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Amna brightened as she described sauntering through the hallways with her friends and their plans for prom. She’d found a dress already for the occasion, pulling up a picture of the garment to show a Star reporter — along with program co-ordinator and youth worker Kim Evans.
The dress would need some adjustments, to make a slit in the leg less dramatic, said Amna, whose last name the Star is not identifying due to her circumstances. Evans nodded, assuring Amna she knew someone who could help.
“The whole thing is so sparkly,” Amna beamed. “It’s like the entire night-in-New-York type thing.”
For these kinds of special purchases, Amna can dig into the allowance she receives each month through Ontario Works social assistance, meant to help with basic needs.
Amna counts herself lucky to have landed at the Etobicoke site, run by the charity Youth Without Shelter. There are emergency beds on one end, while Amna stays in what are known as the transitional beds, which aim to keep homeless youth in school. Pre-COVID-19, it offered 20 spaces; now, there’s slightly more than a dozen, with more distance carved out between beds.
Her dreams are bigger than high school graduation. She’s been accepted to a community and justice program at a local college. The shelter will help with scholarship applications, and she’ll look to the Ontario Student Assistance Program for more funding. After that, she told the Star, she’s interested in working for the military and, eventually, going to law school.
“There’s literally this entire specific group of people that are meant to fight the crime, or fight for people,” she said. “And I think I’m really good for that — for standing up for people.”
While the number of kids under 18 in shelters dropped during the pandemic, after rising for several years, it’s now back on the upswing, including an increase in teens between the ages of 11 and adulthood. A major factor in numbers rising again over the last year, city staff say, has been the loosening of pandemic border restrictions, meaning more refugee families are once again leaning on the system.
On April 1, 2021, there were 567 children under 18 in city-administered shelters, some 40 per cent refugees. A year later, that number has nearly doubled to 1,108 children with 56 per cent of them refugees.
Throughout the pandemic, some youth in other shelters have struggled to keep up with their education. In late 2020, the Star spoke with three siblings in a Toronto family shelter, who struggled with access to internet in their shared room to log on for school. The eldest, 17, also noted her own educational goals felt less important than sorting out where they’d live next.
About a year after leaving her home, Amna has now settled into a routine. She thinks of her shelter room like a dormitory, with a small string of lights above her bed and her shoes on a tidy rack. She wakes especially early on the days she goes to school, wanting to look her best. The room has two beds, as the shelter has avoided assigning roommates during the pandemic.
One day a while back, Amna pressed the beds together, imagining herself on a luxuriously sized mattress. She giggled at the memory, as Evans noted she’d had to break up the daydream — having the beds merged together would present a fire hazard.
But even with the additional supports she’s allotted, from laptops to one-on-one tutoring and therapy sessions, adjusting hasn’t been easy. She had a hard time getting used to entirely new rhythms, and especially bristled at the idea of opening up to a therapist when she first arrived.
Others have struggled with the transition, too. Deborah, 16, arrived last fall, looking to escape conflicts at home. For several nights, she had trouble sleeping.
“I didn’t trust the area,” she said. “I didn’t trust the place. I didn’t trust anything.”
The shelter’s pillows, which Evans said were designed to repel bedbugs and acknowledged were less than ideal, collapsed quickly under any pressure, Deborah said. She worried, before arriving, about being sexually assaulted.
There have been outside pressures, too. Classmates would needle her for an explanation about taking a new bus home, and she tried to handle rocky relationships with family from afar.
“Being in this place, it was hard. It was hard to be alone. It was hard to be an adult.”
But five months after arriving, she sees it as an opportunity to drown out the din of family strife, and focus on where she wants her life to go. Not everyone who comes through the shelter reaches the coveted graduation milestones. She’s already seen another young person get kicked out.
“There’s always lines,” Evans explained, noting that bringing in weapons, drugs and alcohol, or using hateful language were grounds for expulsion. Their program filters out some more complex cases, barring youth with any “disruptive behavioural issues.” Lesser violations, such as breaking the shelter curfew, would come with consequences such as extra chores the next day, beyond the one-task-per-day assigned to those in the shelter’s stay-in-school program.
When a Star reporter was present, one resident threw a hard punch into a wall. It was a medical incident, staff said, with first responders called to the scene to help get them back to stability.
When a young person arrives on either end of the shelter, executive director Steve Doherty said they have a conversation about safety. There were staff present around the clock, he added, with lockable bedroom doors and lockers to store cherished belongings.
Looking at the years ahead of her, Deborah is determined to stay on course. She plays soccer at school, and proudly listed her grades in various courses, including an above-90 mark for the English class that easily ranks as her favourite. She envisions a future for herself in journalism.
“If you’re willing to work with it,” she said “everything is there for you.”
Deborah and Amna are in a better position than many homeless youth in Toronto.
“In some settings, a young person would not get anywhere near those kinds of supports,” said Kidd, the CAMH psychology chief, labelling the funding and resources available for the overall youth shelter sector as “inadequate.”
Deborah contrasts her experience with that of a 16-year-old classmate, who, facing difficulties at home, tried to strike out in the city alone and appeared to be struggling. “It’s really hard without support,” she said.
For those who did enter the shelter system, Kidd noted frequent staff turnover — a trend he attributed to strenuous work for compensation that, he said, often didn’t measure up — could take its toll on a vulnerable teenager. If a young person formed a positive relationship with a specific worker, only to have them shuffled out, it weakened their support network.
Meanwhile, Amna and Deborah each spoke about the reassurance of knowing which staff they’d see each day, with Deborah listing who would be present for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Kidd noted many young people coming into shelters have faced traumatic events. Several were fleeing abuse, coming in as refugees, or struggling with their mental health or learning challenges. A disproportionate number of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S+, city statistics show.
And often, young people are shuffled from one public system to another, with more than a quarter coming into shelters after weathering foster care, kin care or group homes. That transition — when a young person reaches adulthood and is no longer considered a child under the state’s care — is known to be an especially high-risk moment for falling into homelessness.
“Once you’re on the street as a youth, you really feel like you’ve been abandoned by society. It takes some real care to feel like you’re part of society again,” said Toronto outreach worker Doug Johnson Hatlem. In terms of schooling, any number of things could lead a homeless teen to give up, he added.
They could fear being judged if they don’t have clean clothes. (When Deborah arrived at the shelter, she had only the clothes on her back.) They could lack a proper space to study, or feel a disconnect with their classmates who aren’t facing the same struggles.
Turning things around starts with housing, he said, for stability. But to help someone who’s weathered through hardship, he argued friendships and mentorships are critical. There also needs to be better care for teens who have faced traumatic events, he said.
“I don’t think we have adequate mental health systems to deal with trauma for anyone, let alone teenagers. I think it’s a really unique time, to be experiencing trauma while coming of age.”
While Deborah still has another year of high school ahead, and isn’t yet looking to move out of the shelter, Amna is on the cusp of another big change.
She’s applied for rent-geared-to-income housing, to bring down rent to what she could afford. With her situation giving her special priority on Toronto’s wait-list of more than 78,800 households, she’s been told to expect an apartment offer in the coming months. “I just don’t know if I’m ready for that,” she admitted. “Maybe I am?”
“You are, though,” Evans replied, suggesting it may be harder to think about alongside stresses like mid-terms. She reminded Amna that moving out wouldn’t cut her off from supports — she could still access supportive staff and psychologists through the shelter’s aftercare program.
The situation was still overwhelming, the 17-year-old said. But she feels she’s made strides in the last year, with more consistency and supports.
“It’s like a ripple effect,” Amna said. “You focus on your present, so you can help your future.”
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org