The death of a young man in a house fire on Cannon Street last week should raise alarm bells about the need for more supportive housing for homeless youth, advocates say.

At least a dozen young people were renting rooms or a space to sleep on the floor of the house before the Feb. 20 fire, according to Loretta Hill-Finamore, director of Good Shepherd Youth Services.

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Advocate Loretta Hill-Finamore says just giving youth a place to live with no other support isn't a solution to homelessness in Hamilton. (Twitter)

"There are horror stories about that place, and complaints were made," Hill-Finamore said. "Accidents can happen, but that was not a safe place."

Hill-Finamore said there are many other rooming houses in the city that take advantage of young people who are in dire need of shelter.

"Youth have such limited choices for housing, it’s disgusting," she said.

At least two of the dozen young people who were living at 249 Cannon Street at the time of the fire are seeking help through Good Shepherd Youth Services, according to Christine Evans.

The lead mental health clinician for street youth said unstable or unsafe housing contributes to the myriad mental health concerns for young people.

Youth Homelessness in Hamilton

  • Approximately 750 people under the age of 21 are homeless in Hamilton
  • More than one-third of them have sought help for serious mental health issues, such as bipolar or depression, through Good Shepherd Youth Services
  • On average, 60 per cent of homeless youth are boys or young men

Source: Good Shepherd Youth Services

Evans recalls a group of youth held hostage during a break-in at a house they were renting. Afterwards, she said, the landlord refused to change the locks on the home.

"[Mental health] symptoms get worse if your sleep is disrupted, and you’re not going to sleep if you’re not feeling safe," Evans said.

There are also stories of young people being told they must have sex with a landlord if they want simple maintenance done, such as water pipes fixed, Hill-Finamore said.

After a childhood of abuse or neglect, "they think that’s all they deserve," she said of the flop houses young people find to rent.

To overcome the stigma faced by homeless youth, Hill-Finamore said the shelter has a clothing bank so young people can dress up in a suit and tie "almost like going for a job interview" when they meet prospective landlords.

But it doesn’t always work.

"They [landlords] think they’re just going to party all the time and rip up the place," Hill-Finamore said.

Looking for solutions

Advocates for homeless youth see three key ways to prevent deaths like the one on Cannon Street:

  1. More safe, affordable housing for youth.
  2. More mental health supports for young people on the street (currently there are only 1.5 clinicians for homeless youth in the city).
  3. More money for early intervention (research shows youth who receive help within their first 48 hours on the street can be deferred from the shelter system and homelessness).

"We need more affordable housing with supports for youth," said Erika Morton, the social planner for street-involved youth with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton.

Supports would include apartments with common space where programs such as community kitchens could be run, Morton said, and staff that could check in with young people who are ready to live independently but may occasionally need help.

"They’re the next generation of our community," Morton said. "And how are we responding to their needs?"