Massey Centre raises the issues affecting pregnant and parenting teens as it advocates for supportive housing for young parents.

A group of racially diverse toddlers play on a mat at Toronto's Massey Centre.
Children at the Massey Centre.
Credit: Massey Centre

The lack of affordable housing in Toronto is at a crisis level! If you are a low-income young single mother, it is extremely difficult to find a place to rent. Despite our best efforts at Massey Centre, many of the young women we serve end up in shelters after leaving our Transitional Housing program, since they can’t afford to rent their own apartments.

I have been very concerned about this new trend and am dedicated to collaborating with the young women and other stakeholders to find solutions for this problem. In 2017, we successfully applied for funding from the City of Toronto to provide a rent subsidy of up to $800 to support the young single mothers find affordable housing. While this subsidy helps some young mothers, there is still a lot of work to do to address the housing issue.

It is against this backdrop that I sought the opportunity provided by The United Church of Canada, to attend the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) National Conference in Edmonton, November 4-6, 2019.

From the first day of the conference, the CAEH commitment to honor Indigenous culture and spirituality was very evident. A scared fire site burned throughout the conference. Indigenous Elders, politicians, and CAEH officials led a procession at the beginning of the conference. Drummers from a local indigenous community performed, and before each meal an indigenous leader blessed the food.

During the conference, there were two Indigenous keynote speakers; Dr. Wilton Littlechild, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six Nation, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Additional members of the Indigenous community facilitated several workshops, sharing their challenges and solutions.

Adam Vaughan, an MPP from Toronto spoke on the first day and was very optimistic that the new federal government could work to end homelessness if we could all build a consensus on what needs to happen. Edmonton’s Mayor Iverson spoke about the success of their housing-first approach, with support from the provincial government that reduced homelessness by 50 percent.

During the next three days of the conference, I attended many workshops dealing with homelessness for youth, young parents, and women. I will take back the information I learned and apply it to my work with young moms at Massey Centre.

I learned a lot about the housing-first approaches used across the country, evidence-based tools used to evaluate vulnerability, and case management strategies to prevent rental evictions. I also learned that despite housing providers’ best efforts vulnerable populations constantly cycle in and out of homelessness because of mental health and addiction issues. The shelter system is always there as a back up for the homeless, but shelters are not the solution! What was very clear to me was that those working in the housing sector are all committed to finding solutions to end homelessness.

There were many outstanding workshops. The Continuum of Solutions to Women’s Homelessness was of particular interest to me. The presentation by researchers Erin Dej, Wilfred Laurier University, and Kaitlin Schwan, York University on Beyond Housing: Loneliness, Isolation, and Young Women’s Exit from Loneliness got my attention due to the themes of social inclusion and loneliness.

The low-income and racialized Generation Z pregnant and parenting young women between 13-25 years old that we serve, often reach out to us for service partially due to their lack of social support from their families, partners, or friends. The researchers identified that Generation Z youth are most lonely. Racialized youth are more likely to deal with social isolation and loneliness at a higher rate than the general population and women under 35 years are more likely to be lonely.

At Massey Centre we know that loneliness if unaddressed, can lead to depression, and when a young woman is raising a baby and has depression, the infant can be unintentionally and permanently negatively impacted in terms of their own mental and physical health over their lifespan. The researchers reminded us that youth are being housed and cycling back into homelessness because they do not have the safety net, and their loneliness is compounded by their history of trauma.

I also learned that gender-based violence and poverty are huge contributors to youth homelessness. We see this at Massey Centre every year, where over 84 percent of the young mothers we serve in our Transitional Housing programs have experience with interpersonal violence.

Young women make up a large percentage of women living on social assistance, and women who experience homelessness have children at a young age and face more discrimination when seeking housing. Having children affects every aspect of their lives. Accessing affordable child-care creates worry about accessing services because they will be on the radar for their children being apprehended. The researchers are interested in learning more about how loneliness affects young women’s lives as they leave homelessness.

More research on this population is desperately needed as what does not get measured is not counted. Having research and data will help us find solutions and access funding to implement these solutions. I immediately reached out to the researchers to discuss the possibility of a partnership with the Massey Centre. I am pleased to report that since my return to work, I have met with the researchers and we are moving forward on this project. Massey Centre wants to raise the profile of the issues and needs affecting pregnant and parenting teens so we can collaborate with the young parents to advocate for supportive and affordable housing and other important supports.

I am incredibly grateful to The United Church of Canada for providing me with the opportunity to attend the conference and learn from others in the field. Thank you very much for your support of Massey Centre.

 — Ekua Asabea Blair, Executive Director at Massey Centre, in Toronto. Ekua was one of three United Church representatives at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in Edmonton, November 4-6, 2019. Massey Centre is a client-centered infant and early childhood mental health organization that supports pregnant and parenting adolescents, aged 13-25, and their babies who reside at the Centre or in the community.

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