Toronto youth shelter gets Bell Canada grant to help deal with refugee surge

Horizons for Youth has received funding to expand mental health services for its youth as the shelter deals with a surge of refugees in recent years.

Horizons for Youth says it has seen an influx of refugees in the last 6 years

Left to right: Horizons for Youth operations manager Dwight Miller; former youth-in-residence Desiree Grant; executive director Filomena Williams; development co-ordinator Stacey Murie. A new grant from Bell Canada will enable Horizons for Youth to hire a full-time mental health worker to service its 45 youths in residence. (Kelda Yuen/CBC News )

When Rodos Saed arrived in Canada from Iraq last year, one of the first things he noticed was the cold. He didn't mind though, considering the alternative.

"The situation was really tough in my country. I had to leave for my safety," he said.

While Saed's parents fled to the U.K., he decided to claim asylum in Canada. The 24-year-old arrived in Toronto on Nov. 8.

"I'm not with my family. I don't have money with me. I'm not allowed to work. If it wasn't for [Horizons for Youth], where would I be? Only God knows."

Horizons for Youth is a shelter for at-risk and homeless youth that admits people aged 16 to 24.

Operations manager Dwight Miller, who has been with Horizons for 13 years, says the shelter has been dealing with a surge in young refugees and asylum claimants like Saed over the past several years, and it's been a strain on resources.

"We see some youth coming directly from the airport straight to the shelter. The airport staff were directing them right to Horizons," Miller told CBC Toronto.

"It's been quite the journey. The ups and downs, the struggles financially —​ trying to hold the place together at times with Band Aids," he said.

That's partly why Bell Canada presented Horizons For Youth with a $18,500 cheque this week. The money will help the shelter expand its mental health services.

Rodos Saed has been staying at the youth shelter since last November after fleeing Iraq. He hopes to get a work permit and be able to move into his own place by next month. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC News)

Located in a quiet residential area on Gilbert Avenue near Eglinton Avenue West, Horizons first opened its doors in 1994. Today, it is one of eight youth shelters in Toronto.

Open 24 hours a day, the shelter has 45 beds, with an average 98 per cent occupancy rate. The typical stay is three months, though some youths stay for over a year.

'God help me to find a place' 

Ali, a 22-year-old refugee from Yemen who didn't want to give us his real name, arrived at Horizons in August after traveling from Montreal where he had spent time in another shelter.

"I was like, 'God help me to find a place. I need a place, I can't just live on the streets,'" he said.

"Having just a bed to lay on and sleep. That is amazing, honestly."

Horizons for Youth added 10 more beds in 2015, allowing for 45 youths to reside in the shelter at any given time. In 2018, it saw an average 98 per cent occupancy rate. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC News)

Last year, Toronto's Street Needs Assessment survey found approximately 40 per cent of people using the city's shelters identified as refugees or asylum claimants.

Some, like Saed, left a promising future behind. He was studying to become a civil engineer when he fled Iraq. Though his future is now unclear, Saed is grateful.

"I'm not out in the cold. I'm nice and warm."

Miller says his staff were "kind of caught off guard" by the influx of refugees, but are adjusting.

"We're learning to deal with them, to connect with certain partners in terms of newcomer services," he said. in order to

"They come with different life experience so there's the challenge of getting them connected with certain status or identification," Miller said.

Operations manager Dwight Miller says it's a constant struggle to get enough funding to provide the youths with everything they need. Currently, the city provides 60 per cent of the funding, with grants and other donors making up the rest. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC News)

With support from Horizons, Saed hopes to get his work permit and find a job.

"As soon as I get my first pay cheque, I will hopefully have enough money to move on from here."

Mental health a priority

Besides the basics, Horizons for Youth provides programs with the aim of helping youths get back on their feet. These include workshops on dealing with finances and landlords, and managing stress.

A case worker is also assigned to each youth to help identify goals and work toward them.

"The ultimate goal is that they can go back into the community and integrate into the community as a healthy individual. But they need to heal within first," executive director Filomena Williams says.

For many, it is a hard, uphill climb.

"These kids come here traumatized and they need the help."

Williams worked with abused women and children for many years before joining Horizons 12 years ago. She says over 60 per cent of youth at Horizons struggle with mental health issues.

"It's usually family dysfunction. A lot of issues are related to mental health. A lot of parents don't identify when there is a mental health issue."

Desiree Grant still remembers the day her mom dropped her off at Horizons. She was 16.

Desiree Grant still keeps in touch with the staff at Horizons, eight years after first walking through its doors at 16. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC News)

"The relationship with my mother was rocky. We went through quite a number of changes in a short period of time. I didn't adjust well. I was beginning to get aggressive with her."

Grant stayed at the shelter for seven months, eventually moving back home. Now 24, she has a job as a makeup artist and says the relationship with her mom has improved.

"The things I learned here, I use to this day. The structure helped a lot. It made me to want stability."

The shelter has a psychiatrist who drops in every two weeks. For the last two years, it has also employed a part-time mental health and addictions worker thanks to a grant from Green Shield Canada, a non-profit organization specializing in health benefits.

"We're finding that the need is increasing," Williams said.

That's why the grant from Bell comes at an opportune time.

The money comes from the company's Let's Talk Community Fund, and will be used to hire a full-time mental health worker, Miller says.

"We don't know what's coming down the pipe. We don't know what the future looks like but we're happy with where we are right now."