After 10 long years of battling for a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth, advocates will see their work come to fruition this summer.
The YMCA’s Sprott House is not like most homes on Walmer Road. After a decision by city council in their budget last week, the modest Annex home can now be called historic, as it is Canada’s first LGBTQ transitional housing program and the result of a decade of tireless work by a local advocate for homeless youth.
Just a brisk walk north of Spadina subway station, the 19th-century building with bright red brick and etched mouldings stands out from the surrounding greyed apartment complexes. Inside, the house is modest but charming: bright wallpaper welcomes visitors in the entryway, a remnant of the bed and breakfast that once operated out of the three-storey home. Rooms are fitted with double beds and TVs from the early 2000s. Heavy dark wood doors hide offices and lounges, kitchens and bedrooms. The stairs inside creak just as much as you’d expect. “I like to think it’d make a good Halloween house,” Jeanette Blair, Sprott House’s site manager, says.
Soon this building will serve as a refuge for some of Toronto’s most vulnerable: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) homeless youth. Last week, the city allocated $600,000 of its 2015 budget to fund 54 beds for queer and transgender homeless youth. Twenty-five of those beds are in Sprott House, which will be Canada’s first LGBTQ shelter when it opens this summer. Blair says the YMCA will formally announce its transitional housing strategy in two to six months.
“We’ve worked with homeless youth for quite a few decades, and this was a natural extension of a lot of the services we already provide,” she says. “This was a chance for us to focus our resources on a highly marginalized group of people within the youth homelessness population.”
A second organization hosting the remaining 29 beds has not yet announced its participation in the initiative.
Unlike traditional shelters, Sprott House will provide programming specifically targeted toward LGBTQ youth, says Blair. “We’re very much looking forward to—especially with the approval of the latest budget—focusing our case management services, our counselling services and our outreach services on LGBTQ2S youth,” she says.
Some staff members, including Blair, identify as queer and/or trans, while an advisory panel of affected youth and partners of the community is being organized to better understand the barriers faced by the marginalized group.
On that advisory panel is Alex Abramovich, who has been one of the few faces vying for better LGBTQ protections in the shelter system for the better part of a decade. The postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has been closely studying the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth—an interest that stems from his own challenging coming-out experience as a trans- and queer-identified man—since his days as a grad student at York University.
Today, Abramovich’s research focuses on both LGBTQ homelessness and access to mental health services. His work has uncovered the complexity of LGBTQ homelessness: that, due to family conflict after coming out, many queer youth are kicked out of their homes.
For that reason, queer youth make up a disproportionate number of those on the street or attempting to access shelter services. The Toronto Street Needs Assessment of 2013 found that 21 per cent of homeless youth in the city identify as LGBTQ. That number, however, is likely higher; Abramovich says many queer and trans youth are reluctant to use shelter services, and when they do, they are hesitant to disclose their sexual or gender identity. Before that, another study found that 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. On any given night in Toronto, a Covenant House report reveals, about 2,000 youth are homeless.
Despite the need, it has taken years for the City to act. Advocates like Abramovich attended and deputed at city council committee meetings month after month, bringing new statistics and research to the forefront. Eventually, hostel services acting director Gord Tanner took interest in Abramvoich’s cause and helped him form a working group to better understand the issue.
“Before that,” Abramovich says, “this was not part of the dialogue on youth homelessness in Canada at all.”
While it’s a start, advocates say the approved funding is still not enough. Both Blair and Abramovich see it as a jumping-off point, a part of what Blair calls a “comprehensive strategy” to support queer youth.
Abramovich says the city has been working to update its shelter standards so that everyone in housing that is not exclusively for LGBTQ youth are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. “Youth shelters have been around for over 30 years in Toronto, but they’re embedded deeply in homophobic and transphobic culture, so it’s trying to figure out ways that we can change the culture,” he says. The city is expected to release its updated shelter standards some time in the summer.
But the problem is pervasive. Councillor Joe Cressy of Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina (where the YMCA is located) says about 4,000 people use the shelter system every night. “If you judge a city based on how well we care for our residents, we’re failing,” he says. “Should we be advocating for more funding? Absolutely.”
Adding to the obstacles in shelter support are Toronto’s ongoing difficulties to support affordable and social housing. Cressy notes that about 91,000 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing in Toronto, a wait that is around eight years long. It’s a result, Abramovich says, of the City’s focus on emergency, not long-term, responses to homelessness.
And while they still have a long way to go, advocates are celebrating their success at Sprott House. It’s an achievement that, when asked, Blair sums up in just three words: “Exciting. Challenging. Historic.”