Jeff White helps street-involved youth understand the network of resources available so they can get their life back on track.
No wrong door
By Scott Taylor, Special to United Way
It’s a typical picture of a young man or woman with the future waiting before them. They’ve graduated high school and are preparing for university or maybe a job in the trades. They’re still living at home, of course, and enjoying time with friends before the serious aspects of life begin.
Sadly, that’s a world some will never know. In Elgin and Middlesex counties, too many young people are experiencing homelessness.
“Our philosophy is no wrong door,” says Jeff White, Ontario Works Trustee for youth under-18 and Dental Project Coordinator at Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), a United Way partner agency. “Regardless of how you become connected with YOU, we want to know what else you need. We provide complete wrap-around support all centred on housing stability.”
“Imagine yourself at 16. You’re expected to attend school, do well in school, maybe work part-time, and make friends. Your social life is becoming important and you’re developing a sense of who you are. Now imagine going through all that without a healthy, stable place to live.”
United Way invests in two programs at YOU, the Youth Action Centre (YAC) in London and Next Wave Youth Centre in Strathroy. Both locations provide outreach services, basic needs support, employment counselling and housing services.
YOU serves more than 2,000 youth a year. Of those, 840 access things like hygiene, basic needs supplies and meals along with 540 receiving referrals to address physical health, mental health, addictions and housing needs.
“Imagine yourself at 16,” White says. “You’re expected to attend school, do well in school, maybe work part-time, and make friends. Your social life is becoming important and you’re developing a sense of who you are; your identity. Now imagine going through all that without a healthy, stable place to live.”
Young people find themselves homeless for many different reasons, White explains.
“Maybe you just came out as gay to your parents and they kicked you out or there is a history of violence and you had to leave for your own safety. You might spend the next couple of nights outside,” he says.
“If possible, you call a friend and ask to sleep on their couch. They might ask for how long. There’s an awkward silence because you don’t know. You might apply for Ontario Works because you’ve realized you need some sort of income to survive. That’s assuming you even know what it is.”
An additional issue is how quickly this type of lifestyle becomes the usual. According to White, youth begin to see homelessness as part of their identity after just 30 days.
As trustee, White attends the intake appointment where he assesses the housing situation of the youth. From there, he can refer clients to the YAC or to connect with one of the housing support workers for basic needs support, such as laundry, hygiene products, food bank, shower, and more.
Then they begin exploring different housing options and attending viewings with the young person.
Ideally, the housing support worker is able to assist the young person to secure a cheap room for rent. YOU YAC staff continues to provide support with food security, budgeting, life skills, paying bills, making referrals and helping make the youth’s new place feel like a home.
“Securing a residence is half the battle,” says White. “Sometimes the hardest part is maintaining it.”
“Without United Way’s support, we wouldn’t be able to reach the youth falling through those cracks,” he continues.
“We want to help that 16-year-old understand the resources available and see the people who truly care about them, even though they’ve never met. We want them to know they matter and deserve happiness, even when they don’t think so.”
Scott Taylor is a former local journalist with lived experience of poverty. He moderated United Way’s panel discussion Bringing #UNIGNORABLE Issues into Focus. Read our other stories.
“I want to help that 16-year-old understand the resources available and know that they matter and deserve happiness, even when they don’t think so.”
I don’t think a youth chooses to be homeless. A youth becomes homeless…
There’s an issue Children and youth are our future and too many young people in our community are struggling. Poverty and lack of supports early on can make it harder for kids to access future opportunities. Today’s young adults are deeply affected by the changing nature of work and many are struggling to connect with their communities, finish high school and find meaningful jobs.
You can help United Way targets the most at-risk youth in our community. Your generous support gives every young person a real opportunity to succeed, particularly those who are racialized, immigrants, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ or from low-income families.
Last year, $1,910,000 was invested in out-of-school time programs and/or individualized support for 13,720 young people, making them more likely to become successful adults
$52 or $1/week provides 4 at-risk youth a hot, healthy breakfast for two months, encouraging regular attendance at school and improving academic success
$365 provides a recreation centre membership, including access to My Action Plan to Education, a program that helps young people reach future education and career goals
$1,200 gives a young person 8 counselling sessions and an advocate with other service providers and their school
“When someone comes in to the shelter, they’re typically in crisis because they’re experiencing homelessness. After we help stabilize them in the moment, then we start to work on a coordinated housing plan.”