18 min

Raising the roof on queer youth homelessness in Toronto

The stories of five youth who have experienced homelessness highlight the need for a dedicated LGBT shelter in Toronto

Said Salim, who currently lives in transitional housing, says that while staying at the Queen Street West YMCA shelter, he often saw gay youth being harassed because of their sexuality. He says most youth don’t report violence or harassment to shelter staff because they don’t want to be labelled as snitches. Credit: Adam Coish

As a minority group, Toronto’s queer community is used to asking for more representation in politics, the workforce and beyond. It’s the all-too-familiar cry of the marginalized.

Yet there’s a little discussed area where the community’s numbers are strong, and it’s nothing to be proud of — homelessness among LGBT youth.

While LGBT people make up only about five percent of the general Canadian population, queer youth account for at least 20 percent of those using Toronto’s shelter system.

These numbers come from the city’s interim Street Needs Assessment report, released in September. And in fact, they’re on the conservative side. According to a 2013 study by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, about 25 to 40 percent of homeless youth (ages 16 to 26) identify as LGBT.

The numbers point to a serious problem. But as is so often the case, facts and figures have a way of desensitizing us to the very real and very human issues at hand. It’s time we put faces and names to the LGBT homeless youth crisis in Toronto.

Tyler Johnson
Age: 25
Status: Experienced homelessness for one year

“I’m always constantly thinking of where I came from and how I got to where I am now.”

For Tyler Johnson, this journey has seen him through a group home, 14 different schools, discrimination at home and, eventually, homelessness.

Johnson’s troubles started early on. His mother gave birth to him when she was just 15, and his father became a part of his life only in Johnson’s mid-teens. Growing up, money was always an issue. “My family has always lived in poverty,” he says. “I’m trying to change that for myself.”

It’s an uphill battle for Johnson, who had the odds stacked against him. From age 10 to 12, he lived in an all-boys group home. He says that decision came as a result of behavioural issues. “I was just not a good child.”

Johnson needed a change of scenery. Surprisingly, it came at the hand of his paternal aunt and grandmother, though his father continued not to be present in his life. Johnson moved to Nova Scotia, where he stayed for three years and flourished, as his aunt was able to dedicate the time and resources his mother could not. The former troublemaker and bully quickly became an A student who was well liked by his peers.

The Nova Scotia experience ended when Johnson moved back in with his mother, this time in Woodstock, Ontario. Not one to stay in one spot long, he moved in with his estranged father in Toronto nearly two years later. This stay was short-lived, even by Johnson’s standards; after a few months, his stepmother kicked him out — because she found out he’s gay.

“I wouldn’t have been kicked out otherwise,” Johnson says confidently.

He doesn’t know how she found out, as he’s never made it a point to come out to anyone, and he has no clue what his father’s thoughts on the matter are. “I don’t know what his reaction was, other than he didn’t defend me.”

With nowhere to turn, Johnson, then only 15, was homeless.

In the beginning, he would kill as much time as possible in the break room at the McDonald’s where he worked. But eventually he had to leave, and so he would tuck in for the night on the stairs of an apartment building across the street.

At first he continued going to school, but soon the need for money saw him dropping out and taking on extra shifts. After two weeks of this, he decided to take refuge in a Scarborough shelter, but he says poor living conditions led him to pursue other shelter options within a month. When a friend mentioned Covenant House, located near Yonge and Gerrard streets, it sounded like an oasis.

“I’ve always liked discipline and structure,” says Johnson, adding that those elements were lacking in his home life. He got what he was looking for at Covenant House. They assigned him a “point person,” whom he checked in with twice a day. Staff also required that he be in the shelter’s job-search program, as he was out of school and had quit his job at McDonald’s because of the lengthy travel time and general stress of his situation.

Through the job-search program he participated in resumé clinics and mock interviews. Covenant House helped him eventually land a job as a lifeguard at Canada’s Wonderland.

But shelter rules bit him in the ass, too.

Shelter staff discharged him briefly when he spent money meant to stay in his savings. He says Covenant House expects that clients not spend their savings, as they believe the resources provided are sufficient and want to see clients build up funds for when they leave permanently.

Staff members did provide Johnson with a list of shelter options when they discharged him. The short time away made him appreciate Covenant House all the more. “There was a noticeable difference between shelters,” he says, claiming the differences lie in Covenant House’s emphasis on structure and its better funding. Indeed, more than 80 percent of the shelter’s funding comes from private donations, whereas the city primarily funds most other shelters in Toronto.

Covenant House’s Catholic roots also set it apart from other shelters, but, Johnson says, you wouldn’t know that from being there. He says there was no talk of religion during his stay, and he didn’t get the sense he was dealing with homophobic people. “If there was anything that was wrong, we could always go to staff.”

He did sometimes hear shelter clients casually throw around homophobic slurs but says he never witnessed a targeted physical or verbal attack. “I had a positive experience. I do know that there are some youth who have had a negative experience. I just never experienced that.”

Except when it came time to make the move to transitional housing.

Staff at Covenant House referred Johnson to a transitional housing facility in the west end. By this point he had returned to school, where he was, fortunately, behind by only a semester. But the extracurricular activities he was involved in often meant he missed curfew, which didn’t fly with staff members at the home. Add to that the fact that they had a no-cellphone policy and required clients to do chores, and it quickly became apparent this wasn’t the place for Johnson.

“Worst experience ever,” he says. It lasted only a month.

He then stayed with a friend for two weeks before finding a room to rent. Ontario Works funds covered the cost of rent, while his grandmother back in Nova Scotia pitched in $500 to $800 each month to help cover other expenses.

From there, life took a turn for the better. One of his teachers shared his story with Toronto District School Board trustee Chris Bolton, who is now chair of the board of trustees. Impressed by Johnson’s perseverance, Bolton offered him a co-op position as a constituency assistant.

“I’ve become someone who’s recognized as knowing the school board in and out,” Johnson says proudly.

In a full-circle moment, he had the opportunity to speak before Covenant House’s board of directors about a project the school board was looking into. While the project didn’t pan out, Covenant House invited him to be a spokesperson for the shelter after they found out he’s an alumnus. He gladly accepted the role.

Nakisha Millien
Age: 22
Status: Experienced homelessness for 15 months

No two experiences are identical.

Nakisha Millien moved to Toronto from Montreal in February 2012. She had aspirations of attending film school in the city, but when plans to room with friends didn’t work out, she found herself homeless.

As a result, she stayed at Covenant House for three months. To hear her describe it, however, it was anything but an oasis. “I felt like an outcast when I was staying there,” says Millien, who preferred not to have her photo taken.

She attributes this largely to her being out as a lesbian while she was there. She says that she felt hostility from certain staff members and shelter clients and that it was common to get “weird” looks and comments from young women who weren’t happy about rooming with a lesbian.

“Things like that would only happen when staff wasn’t around,” she says, as defamatory remarks are grounds for discharge.

To Millien, none of that compared to the threat of physical abuse gay men and trans people faced. One incident in particular stands out: she says she saw a man stab a trans woman at the shelter. She doesn’t know why it happened or what, if any, repercussions there were. All she knows is how it made her feel. “I was kind of scared for my own life,” she confesses.

Yet according to Carol Howes, director of program services at Covenant House, no one reported the incident. “We are not aware of any formal complaint around that,” she says, claiming that if a stabbing had occurred, it’s unlikely that staff wouldn’t have heard about it. “If someone had brought that forward, it would have been dealt with.”

In May 2012, having had enough of Covenant House, Millien moved to another Toronto shelter: Eva’s Phoenix. She stayed there for a year, but staff denied her application to extend her stay another year. She had three months to move and no job.

Fortunately, she soon got one at McDonald’s and was able to rent a room in the west end, where she still lives. She is taking part in a filmmaking program organized by a non-profit organization while she looks for employment and supports herself with savings.

She certainly wasn’t and isn’t living the dream, so why stay in Toronto? “I stayed because I wasn’t ready to leave,” she says. “I feel like me leaving is me giving up on this.”

“This” is Street Voices, a magazine that showcases the art and voices of Toronto’s street youth. Millien is the publication’s creative director.

She says the public doesn’t know that many street youth are incredibly talented or that the shelter system is seriously flawed. Street Voices aims to change that, and the team behind it is in the process of applying for grants. Millien is hopeful that the magazine will be one of several tools that will help reform the system.

“The system that’s running right now is not working, and there needs to be change,” she says.

Ryan Tremblay
Age: 23
Status: Experienced homelessness for 18 months

Ryan Tremblay has seen for himself that the system needs changing. Struggles with mental health and drug use landed him in the shelter system; he was there on and off from the age of 18 to 20. He says his parents tried to help him but wouldn’t permit him to continue his destructive behaviour at home around his two younger brothers.

He says Toronto’s shelter system provided him with food and a roof as he battled his demons but little else. “When I was at my most desperate, the shelter system wasn’t there to help me the way that they could have.”

What finally did the trick were his family’s repeated attempts to help turn his life around. “I would have been dead if my family didn’t support me,” he says.

Having used the shelter system as a gay individual, he’s convinced queer youth have it particularly rough. “I saw the face of discrimination in these shelters,” he says. He decided to do something about it. Nine months ago, Tremblay started the Facebook group Youth for an LGBT Shelter in Toronto, with the intention of helping prompt the creation of such a shelter.

“Gay youth face a specific need set that isn’t currently being met by the system,” he says, noting that LGBT youth often confront prejudice from family and friends and discrimination in the workplace while grappling with a tendency for drug and alcohol abuse and a distinct form of self-hatred and potential for self-harm.

In his experience, it is shelter clients and not staff members who are discriminatory. He says that a fellow client physically attacked one of his gay male friends when he stayed at the Queen Street West YMCA Centre. According to Tremblay, shelter staff allowed the alleged assailant to return.

Jeanette Blair, manager of democratic living for the shelter, says she can’t comment on any specific incident because of confidentiality and privacy policies. Nonetheless, she admits that it’s tough for LGBT youth in the system. “We do see that there is violence against LGBT youth in our shelter and all shelters.”

But Blair says staff members intervene quickly if such situations come to their attention. It’s not always easy, however, because shelter clients often choose not to file complaints for fear of retaliation. “I think we do the best we can with the information that we have,” she says.

For the clients using the facilities, that’s not enough.

“To say you’re gay in a shelter is very scary,” says Tremblay, who believes a shelter meant specifically for LGBT youth would go a long way in doing away with that fear.

Tremblay and other members of his group have met to discuss goals and specifics for such a project. He says they’re being realistic and know that if this is to happen, it will take years and plenty of funds. Undeterred, one thing is clear to Tremblay: “Someone needs to stand up and do this.”

Said Salim
Age: 19
Status: Currently in transitional housing

If there’s a case study for the strides LGBT homeless youth can make when they band together, it’s that of Said Salim and his friends. They found community in one another and used that strength to push back against those harassing them.

This story takes place at the Queen Street West YMCA Centre, where Salim arrived in October 2012. For months before that he had been homeless with his mother and sister, whom he says had been abusive toward him.

At the beginning of his shelter stay, things were going relatively well. He re-enrolled in high school and finally had a place to live. But beginning in early summer of 2013, he says, it became hard to maintain a positive outlook because he and other queer-identified shelter residents became the targets of bullies.

He says it was typical for these bullies to go around calling young gay men “batty boys” and making gun gestures as they yelled, “Boom!” While Salim wasn’t usually the target, he says he often witnessed such incidents and did his part to stop them. He spoke to several staff members about what was going on, but he says they didn’t take his claims seriously.

So he did what he could to protect himself. “Fearing for my safety, I carried a rock around with me should things get physical,” he says. After he showed that rock to staff, he says, they finally realized the gravity of the situation.

By then, Salim was in his own group. Five LGBT-identified people and several allies had bonded over the incidents. With the support of one of these friends, Salim filed a complaint with staff even though he knew other clients would consider him a snitch for doing so — a label that can be very stigmatizing in a shelter setting.

As a result, he says, staff discharged one of the residents who had been making threats, which led to more tension. Eventually, the two groups called a truce and agreed that they would essentially ignore each other; the situation never became violent. Salim attributes this to his and his friends’ efforts to make it known that they would use the shelter complaints process and, if need be, the police to protect themselves.

Salim believes the fight ultimately brought a greater level of LGBT acceptance to the shelter. And despite the incidents, it was a summer of fun. Salim explored city parks with his new friends and even participated in the Pride parade. He says his experiences at the shelter allowed him to come out of his shell and blossom.

“To me, I considered it a huge evolution,” he says.

Salim left the shelter this past October and moved into transitional housing at the Sprott YMCA Centre, in the Annex neighbourhood.

“The issues of violence and harassment that are so common for LGB and trans youth in the shelter system are, by comparison, very rare in our transitional housing program,” says Blair, who also manages Sprott. She says this is because residents have their own rooms and bathrooms, an emphasis on privacy she believes should be system-wide.

At Sprott, Salim engages in such hobbies as playing the recorder and saxophone. He has no curfew and pays a small rent. He’s excelling in school and has learned he has an affinity for acting. “I’m happy,” he says.

“I went from a scared individual when I was living with my mother to someone who is out, loud and proud.”

Ryan M
Age: 24
Status: Currently lives in a shelter

Redemption is a journey, and sometimes you have to start right back at square one before you reach your destination.

That’s certainly the case for Ryan M, who is now in the shelter system for a second time. Ryan has asked that Xtra not disclose his last name because he does not want his employer to learn about his living arrangements.

Ryan’s first brush with homelessness occurred in 2011, when he says he had to drop out of university because he ran out of OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) funds. According to Ryan, relatives wanted to give him money, but his father wouldn’t allow it. He believes his sexuality, which he claims is a “major disappointment” for his father, had a lot to do with it.

“I think it removed a lot of the motivation to help me,” he says.

Out of school and out of funds, what came next is no surprise. “I didn’t have a job lined up, and I ended up in a shelter for two months,” he says.

His parents, who are divorced and living in Thunder Bay, knew of his situation and yet didn’t open their homes to him. Instead, he stayed at Turning Point Youth Services, on Wellesley Street near Jarvis, before moving into a boarding house for four months.

These were tough times for Ryan, who says he has bipolar disorder and has suffered from manic episodes. While staying at the boarding house, he had suicidal thoughts. “I was actually looking at places to jump off of,” he says. “I had picked the bridge.”

The only reason he didn’t go through with it, he says, is because around that same time he met someone he felt truly cared about him. Ryan, then 22, began dating a well-to-do 30-year-old. He says that while money was a motivating factor for his decision to get into the relationship, the emotional support he received was paramount as well. “It was a needs-based relationship,” he explains.

Ryan began staying over at his boyfriend’s place, and by February 2012 he had moved in and given up his boarding-house room. But after 10 months together, the relationship ended. “It was a very mutual breakup,” Ryan says. “I just wanted to be independent again.”

Independence meant moving into a North York basement apartment, which he was able to afford through his work refurbishing internet equipment. He continued to rely on his ex for emotional support.

He attributes the manic episode he had in May 2013 largely to this lack of closure. The episode coincided with his apartment flooding and an unreasonable landlady who kicked him out because of it. He spent most of the month that followed in a hostel. Two of those nights, however, he spent on the street when he wasn’t able to reserve a spot ahead of time.

Requiring more stability, he returned to Turning Point, this time staying for five months. He says that he mostly kept to himself at the shelter and that, other than being called a “fag” a few times, he didn’t face much homophobia while there. Yet he says it was harassment that led him to leave the shelter.

He claims that he became a target when he refused to move around some money for, and give up his bottom bunk to, a fellow shelter client. He says that person stole his glasses and placed pot hash and Zig-Zag rolling papers on his bed in an effort to get him kicked out.

When he told staff about this, Ryan says, they accused him of creating the problem by being too open about his willingness to work with staff. He says they also pointed the finger at him for running away from his problem instead of trying to resolve it, so he left for a different shelter. “I didn’t feel safe,” he says.

Turning Point did not respond to Xtra’s request for an interview.

Since January, Ryan has been staying at a North York shelter, which he says he likes a lot more than Turning Point because there are fewer people to a room and staff are able to better interact with clients.

Ryan was on a waiting list for transitional housing but has been told he’s not eligible because he has a full-time job. Even if he had landed a spot, he would have had to move out in May when he “ages out.” Most Toronto youth shelters admit only clients aged 16 to 24.

Fortunately, Ryan recently found a roommate and is set to move out of the shelter on May 1. He plans to continue saving money until then. “I came out of the system too early the first time around, and I didn’t have things set up,” he says. “I see myself as making use of resources so that the problem I had won’t happen again. And I think that should be the goal of the system.”


Many hope the Toronto shelter system, which is under review, will soon be revamped. The city recently passed a motion that will see the creation of an anti-discrimination framework and ensure shelter staff members are trained in responding to trauma. A working group made up of community partners and service providers is also looking into the feasibility of creating a shelter for LGBT youth.

“Both those requested items are very proactive,” says Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Ward 27 councillor who spearheaded the motion. She expects the group to come up with a working plan that addresses the overrepresentation of LGBT youth in the shelter system. The group will report back in the second quarter of this year.

Wong-Tam hopes the group’s findings will support her planned funding request for an LGBT youth shelter in the 2015 budget. It’s still early days, but she sees the best possible solution as using community fundraising efforts and city money to make improvements to an already existing city-owned building.

Covenant House is one of the participating organizations in the group. The shelter has done its own research into the matter, and the results only solidify claims that LGBT youth are overrepresented in the system. Howes says that in January 2012 and 2013, Covenant House surveyed 100 clients and asked several questions, including how they self-identify. Both times, about 25 percent of those surveyed identified as LGBT. “Those numbers are understated,” says Howes, who believes many youth don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information. “In street culture, anything that makes you different makes you a target, too.”

But the differences that make queer youth stand out from their heterosexual counterparts would be the norm in a dedicated LGBT shelter.

While Wong-Tam believes such a shelter will come to be — and she supports it — she wants more. She wants to see the whole system overhauled. “I think certain members of the community want a quick fix and they want this one shelter.” But, she warns, “there is no silver bullet.”

Shawn Fowler, a sexual health counsellor at the Hassle Free Clinic who also works at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, thinks such a shelter is a “no brainer,” but he’s not looking for a Band-Aid solution. He sees it as part of the solution to a much larger problem. “We see a number of clients who are street involved or street active,” he says. Because of their circumstances, it’s hard to follow up with these clients, and he says many “fall through the cracks.”

“These conditions aren’t optimal for maintaining health,” he says.

Fowler is concerned about what, if any, healthcare services the “most marginalized youth in the downtown core” are accessing in the aftermath of two major closures — Shout Clinic and Street Outreach Services (SOS).

In 2011, Shout Clinic, which provides services for homeless and street-involved youth, moved from its former location near Jarvis and Wellesley streets to the Queen West area. A few months later, SOS, which provided community services for youth engaged in the sex trade, also closed its doors.

Fowler says that if Toronto does get a designated LGBT youth shelter, it’s important that it have a solid relationship with a good health centre. And he believes that this shelter should be located near other LGBT resources — if not in the Village, then elsewhere downtown. “I think community is important,” he says. “There’s comfort in numbers, and there’s safety in numbers.”

Not everyone, however, is a fan of building yet another downtown shelter.

“Homelessness doesn’t just happen in downtown Toronto,” says James Bar, an associate junior planner. “Gay people don’t just live in downtown Toronto.”

In 2013, Bar analyzed how urban planning can have a hand in remediating the issue of LGBT youth homelessness. He says decision-makers need to understand the issues before moving to enact policy, at which point they can work toward guaranteeing funding. “We can’t write policy and enact actions without knowing what is going on,” he says.

Bar says wards 27 and 28 already have an oversaturation of social-housing units, so he expects opposition to the idea of creating another shelter there. “There’s stigmas between shelters and what they’ll bring to a neighbourhood,” he says. He claims people associate shelters with drug and alcohol problems and feel they lower property values.

He concedes, however, that because of the entire GTA’s ease of access to the two wards, they are the most likely candidates to house such a shelter. “Chances are if we did put in a shelter, it would be in this area.”

Whether we see such a shelter in the near future or not, Bar says there is plenty to concentrate on in the meantime. “The next step is to look inside what we’ve already created and find out how we can make it work better.”

That’s where the working group comes in. The city’s Shelter, Support & Housing Administration division (SSHA) will be reviewing the current envelope of training related to LGBT issues in consultation with the group.

At present, shelter staff members must attend anti-oppression training within the first year of their employment. But the city developed this curriculum in 2002, and many feel it does not deal adequately with issues of LGBT sensitivity. Staff can attend Trans Awareness Training 101, which is offered through the Hostels Training Centre in partnership with The 519, but this is not mandatory.

The city requires that all shelters have a complaints process in place and that staff inform clients of this upon admission. And yet despite this, there have been “no formal complaints or incident reports concerning homophobia or transphobia issues,” according to SSHA. Something’s clearly amiss, as Xtra’s investigation alone highlights.

The complaints process and other identified areas of concern within the shelter system will be matters of public comment should plans for a dedicated LGBT youth shelter move forward. Along with calls for public consultation, there will be calls for financial donations. For her part, Wong-Tam feels confident that the community will respond.

“Our community has always risen to the challenge to try and improve the conditions for ourselves,” she says.

Time will tell if this will be the case once again.