Service users and partner agencies are still unsure how many staff are leaving, and how other programs will be affected.
Young people at who have benefited from the drop-in program at Evergreen Centre want to know why it is being phased out, and why they were not consulted first. At Monday’s “town hall meeting” on the changes, staff informed service users that they will soon lose at least 10 hours of drop-in programming, as well as an art-therapy program that currently operates during those hours. The youth also learned that some drop-in staff are losing their positions, although no further details were provided.
As staff from partner agencies and the media waited outside for news (the meeting was closed to everyone but service users), we spoke with many service users who were oblivious to both the meeting and the changes. “Nobody told me anything; nobody asked me anything,” said Dre, who has been coming for years to access employment services and healthcare. He was skeptical that reducing drop-in hours in favour of visits by appointment would help his peers: “It’s going to make more trouble for these kids. They don’t have nothing to do.”
Steven Thackaberry, who has been accessing drop-in centres since age 16, said he could understand the motivation for wanting to move away from that service. He told us, “some people use these places to their advantage,” to sell drugs or recruit sex workers. He went on to say that “they should be trying to open up more places like this. A lot of us live down here on the streets or in a shelter. Where are we supposed to go?”
Sandy Watters of Central Toronto Youth Services’ outreach team told us “no one in the agency seems to have known” about the changes at Evergreen. The CTYS Youth Hostel Outreach program provides mental-health services for those who use city shelters. Watters said that the elimination of drop-in hours “may affect the youths’ ability to access mental-health services,” since it is already difficult to connect with homeless youths during daytime hours. City shelters generally do not allow patrons to remain inside during the day.
Jon Unger Brandt, the mission development officer at Evergreen’s parent agency, Yonge Street Mission, said drop-in staff would be replaced by “community capacity builders” who will help clients pursue their goals. “We need to demonstrate that we’re actively involved in these youths’ lives,” Brandt told us. He lamented that staff at Evergreen see many of the same faces year after year. “Most organizations are being pushed to not just provide drop-in services,” he said, adding that “more business and independent donors are saying ‘Can you show us that people are being transformed?’”
Brandt was sympathetic to complaints from service users that they were not consulted in advance of the changes. “I completely understand why they’re frustrated. If I were in their position, I would feel the same way.” He told us that those changes stem from Yonge Street Mission’s strategic planning—which calls for more structured interventions—and not from any funding changes. “It’s a significant shift in restructuring. It’s not about financing at this point,” he said. He was also unsure how many staff could be let go, and how reduced drop-in hours would affect access to other programs like employment and legal support.
Given that Yonge Street Mission interim executive director Bill Ryan told us that changes in the organization’s strategic direction can be traced as far back as 2006, it’s unclear why community partners and service users were only made aware of the cuts recently. Staff did not offer us any statistics or research that would shed light on the rationale behind the sudden programming changes.
We spoke with Henrittia, who has been coming to the art-therapy group for a year. “I found out [about program cuts] through my art therapist, but not a lot of people knew,” she said. Herrittia praised the drop-in as a place where her peers “are not afraid to be themselves.” She was upset that youths who have built relationships with staff are unaware of the changes. “They’re not telling the youth who’s leaving. They didn’t consult the young people and they didn’t consult the staff.”
Henrittia added that the drop-in helps service users build relationships and trust. “You’ve gotta let them move forward at their own pace. Why change what’s already good?”
Linda McGrath, who coordinates the city’s Youth Employment Partnerships initiative, says she’s waiting to hear from Evergreen about a meeting to inform its partners about the changes. McGrath says she is concerned because “there have been a number of drop-ins downtown that, if the doors haven’t closed completely, there have still been changes.” Citing barriers street youth face in building trusting relationships, McGrath told us, “if youth have created a comfort level and relationships going into a space, change does affect youth who have to recreate that trust and comfort level.”