Horizons for Youth goes above and beyond its mandate to provide food and shelter to homeless teens.
This is because being a homeless teen means a lot more than not having a place to call home. Often teens arrive with a plethora of other issues and needs, said Filomena Williams, executive director of Horizons for Youth.
Situated in North York, Horizons for Youth caters to teens and young adults 16 to 24, and is one of only nine city-run youth shelters in Toronto.
“We can house 35 kids and we’re pretty well full to capacity most of the time…so we’re looking at on average, 1,000 to 1, 300 kids through our door each year,” Williams said.
While there are many shelters for abused women and children, Williams said teen shelters are a relatively new phenomenon, and a much-needed service in the city.
“If you were a male and you were 15, you couldn’t stay in the women’s shelters,” she said. “It was sort of a phenomenon in the sense that families were starting to break down and women left abusive homes, but there were no services to help those kids.”
Originally, Horizons, which opened its doors in 1994, was a place to house teens until they found housing of their own, but Williams said it didn’t take long to figure out these kids needed a lot more than that.
“A lot of the kids we get have post-traumatic syndrome. They’re leaving abusive environments…and many people don’t consider the high divorce rates or problems with step-parents, a lot of our kids come from abusive environments caused by step-parents but the primary abuser is still the biological parent,” she said.
There are also those with drug problems, suicidal tendencies, gang ties and mental health issues among other problems.
On top of that, Williams said many youth are not be able to function well in a structured school system and they lack basic life skills normally taught at home.
Because of all this, Williams said Horizons has become a transitional home, aiming to help heal the root causes of teens’ problems and provide educational programs and workshops so they can become productive adults and not fall back into the cycle of homelessness.
“When a teen comes in, we assign them a case manager to provide them with supportive counselling and they look at what their individual needs are and helps to identify and prioritize their goals,” Williams said
Horizons has several programs to help accommodate these goals. Their day program is both recreational and educational, and each teens can learn anything from financial strategies to how to stop the cycle of abuse.
They also have a housing program, a GED program for those who want to finish high school as well career horizons to teach them all aspects finding and keeping a job.
“There are many more. We bring people in from the legal sector, people who talk about mental health, public health comes in to talk about sexually transmitted diseases and we also teach them healthy cooking,” she said.
Teaching teens how to cook is the passion and pleasure of Dearon Rule, who has been the chef at Horizons for the past four years. Not only does he prepare meals for staff and residents, Williams said Rule also stands out as one of Horizons success stories.
Rule found himself at the shelter after leaving home when he was 16. Having come from his native Jamaica four years earlier, he found it hard to adjust to his new life in Toronto, particularly in the school system.
“It was a back step for me,” he said. “I had to repeat a lot of my courses in school of things I already learned and it set me back.”
Rule said he resented this and it caused him to not do well in school, which angered his parents. His frustration soon led to depression and his dad thought his passion, cooking, was not an acceptable career to pursue for a young man.
“He said degrading things like only females would get that kind of job and I couldn’t continue to trying to explain it to him. I couldn’t deal with it,” Rule said.
Rule said one of his parent’s punishments was too severe and he decided to leave. He was terrified, but by the second night he found Horizons and immediately began working toward pursuing his goals.
“I knew my strengths so I began volunteering for Meals on Wheels and other food organizations, and I got all the necessary information I needed,” he said.
Rule stayed at Horizons for 11 months and he said they taught him how to budget money and helped him find housing, and it was their support that allowed him to continue working. He even finished a one-year culinary arts program at George Brown College.
“I was lucky,” Rule said. “Everything they did for me allowed me to be accomplished today. They taught me about having a home, a steady income, all the things I needed to know before getting into the real world.”
Now 30, Rule’s success serves as an example to the teens in Horizon.
“I’m a friend to them and I use myself as a prime example of a situation that could work,” he said.
Williams said Rule is just one of many Horizon success stories, but teen homelessness needs more support and attention by both the government and society.
“These kids are the lost cause of society,” Williams said. “There are so many misconceptions and people think, ‘Oh, they should just get a job, it’s their fault they just don’t want to listen to their parents,’ well it’s not so at all. If so there are very few cases.'”