A City’s Unseen Trenches: Mental Illness and COVID-19 in Homeless Youth

We forget about the homeless. We especially forget about homeless youth.  Maybe we cross the street or wince in sympathy on a -20C snowy Canadian winter day. 

However, while everyone (who could) stayed at home during the pandemic for work or school, the homeless were drawing their battle lines in a war where they didn’t have all the fortifications many others took for granted, including sanitation, shelter and social distancing space.  

And like any war, part of the battle is mental. 

An estimated 1,500-2,000 youth are homeless every night in Toronto (Youth homelessness 2021); yet, only a little over 400 designated youth beds are available in Toronto’s shelters. Many homeless youths end up gathering in spaces like the Yonge-Dundas Square and trickling into services such as Eva’s Satellite, Evergreen, and Covenant House, Canada’s largest youth shelter. 

COVID-19 inevitably exacerbated already strained resources; it was a fight no one had predicted. October 2020, a survey of Toronto frontline social service providers revealed increased instances of suicidal ideation, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety in youth who have previously been or were currently homeless. 

For example, the survey reports that 36% of service providers believe youth are experiencing an increase in suicidal ideation, 85% believe youth are experiencing a growth in depression, and 69% believe there has been an increase in substance abuse in youth (Covenant House 2021; CIHR 2021).  

Similarly, a survey of youth-serving organizations by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada, identified an increased need for resources around mental health support as the second largest challenge to supporting youth and families at risk of homelessness—second only to the need for stable housing. 

What makes the frontline battle to support mental illness in homeless youth during COVID-19 so much more challenging than supporting any other community? Among a few reasons, basic needs, including food and sanitation, are poorly met. And access to in-person support services has decreased with social-distancing requirements.

During the pandemic, loneliness and isolation, particularly for 2SLGBTQ+, racialized or Indigenous youth, have heightened attention to anti-2SLGBTQ+ and anti-Black-Indigenous-Asian sentiments. Substance abuse in isolated settings may also have increased over-dosing. In particular, 2SLGBTQ+-identifying youth are reported to make up 40% of homeless youth (CAMH, 2021). A Toronto study suggests that more than a third of the homeless 2SLGBTQ+ youth community have attempted suicide, and over 82% have engaged in self-harm. Many 2SLGBTQ+ youth participants described “couch-surfing” at their friends’ homes or surviving through “hidden homelessness” before COVID-19. Since the pandemic, this option is no longer possible, with many now attempting to live in public spaces, including graveyards. 

Which begs the question, how have youth and youth-serving organizations been coping? What’s working on the frontlines? Like the youth they engage, youth-serving and mental health organizations that support the homeless face the challenge of delivering regular activities during the pandemic. Face-to-face contact is hit-or-miss, and funding or staffing are constant issues for most of the organizations. 

To cope, youth-serving organizations have collaborated to form interagency, working groups to share and distribute supplies. According to a survey of youth-serving organizations [Covenant House, 2021), 87% of them have begun sharing information and 48% have collaborated to distribute supplies in youth communities better. Collaborations between youth-serving organizations have also led to the creation of youth isolation centres for COVID-19 quarantines (City of Toronto 2021). 

Likewise, the creative use of technology has changed the landscape of support services during the pandemic. To name a few examples, websites (e.g.Volunteer Toronto) match volunteers to jobs, online platforms (e.g. Zoom) help check in on individuals struggling with mental illness, and high-profile community members (e.g. Local MPPs) can meet with the youth they represent in their ridings. 

For organizations, such as Eva’s Satellite, that provide targeted mental health services and supportive life-skill programming for youth in residence, it means communicating with partner organizations to push programming as a means to reduce addiction and suicide, to prevent homelessness, and to help youth acquire jobs. 

Once open, Eli’s Place will serve a similar role, supporting young adults in the skills development required to live healthy lives. Providing support to the over 160,000 young adults with serious mental illness who need it will reduce the incidence of homelessness. I believe strongly in the need for this rural, residential treatment option which is why I serve as a Peer Advisor to Eli’s Place. 

Unfortunately, while youth support services struggle to adapt to the current reality, the pandemic is not over. On November 25th, 2021, the World Health Organization named a new COVID-19 variant, “omicron.” 

So, what can we do? What can individual community members do to support vulnerable youth during this rising pandemic tide and its consequent impact on mental illness and security? And no, I don’t suggest only handing out the jangle of spare change that’s ignored in our coat pocket as we walk by someone holding out a coffee cup. 

Instead, I urge you to reach out to give a call to food banks, youth shelters, and youth mental health support services to simply ask, “what do you need today?”

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My name is Carmen; nice to meet you! I am currently working in a food allergy lab as a research student at SickKids Hospital. In my spare time, you can catch me trying new recipes or outdoors on a hike.

Eli’s Place will offer diverse treatment modalities for serious mental illness that focus on recovery and resilience. To learn more about our mission to serve young adults 18 – 35 and how you can help us open our doors, click here.

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