Youth in need of shelter, support

Photo by Will Huang

Programs and shelters are shutting down, yet the number of homeless youth is rising every year – Photo by Will Huang

Youth homelessness is on the rise in the Region of Waterloo. Referencing annual data summaries on homelessness and housing in the region, the amount of youth who used emergency shelters rose from 738 in 2008 to 916 in 2013 — an increase of approximately 27 per cent over a five-year period.

Homeless youth are defined as people between the age of 12 and 24. Unlike homeless adults, youth require much more specific care and services, meaning simply placing them in community housing is not enough to break the cycle of homelessness.

“Many don’t have basic life skills like budgeting, paying rent — they’re still young people. They really need to have a lot of support and have people that walk alongside them for a decent amount of time,” said Sandy Dietrich-Bell, executive director of Reaching Our Outdoor Friends, a Kitchener-based shelter for homeless or at-risk youth.

One way in which many homeless youth are similar to adults in the same situation is that many suffer from mental health issues.

“I would say probably 50 per cent of those we see have either diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues, and some of that is really exacerbated due to living on the street,” said Dietrich-Bell.

Even youth who do not personally suffer from mental illness can find themselves on the streets due to mental illness in their immediate family, she explained.

Worsening the issue of youth homelessness is the continuing shutdown of Out of the Cold shelters in the area.

The program has recently seen the closure of its fourth shelter site. Out of the Cold, which houses around 80 homeless persons during the winter months, can now only provide shelter four nights per week. This deals a crippling blow to homeless youth in the region, who represent 22 per cent of people who regularly use emergency shelters.

“I think in the community we need to have a voice, get loud and let the politicians know that what we’re doing now isn’t working and is just a band-aid,” said Dietrich-Bell.

The federal government has recently announced that $2.2 million will be available to the Region of Waterloo to implement the Housing First program, which not only finds permanent housing for homeless individuals, but also provides additional living support.

The region will receive the funding over the next five years to aid in implementing community support projects for the homeless.

Although the increased funding does help to improve the homeless issue, it still does not address the lack of emergency shelters continually disappearing from the region, which are needed to regularly service at-risk or homeless persons.

“We need to have a place for youth to get off the street and have a moment to breathe — exhale, instead of always being in survival mode,” said Dietrich-Bell.

“Then they can focus on what has put them on the street in the first place, what they need to do to break that cycle and find housing.”

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