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Addressing Homelessness and Poverty

More Than a Shelter: How the YMCA Helps Unhoused Youth Overcome Barriers

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Nelson Borges

Nelson Borges

Director of Youth Outreach and Intervention at the YMCA of Greater Toronto

The YMCA of Greater Toronto’s Wagner Green YMCA offers shelter and comprehensive, wrap-around supports to help youth experiencing homelessness transition to independent living.


Over 3,000 youth experience homelessness in the GTA every night. They need a warm meal and a safe place to stay at night, but they need more than that — they need comprehensive support, from mental health counselling to help finding work.

The YMCA of Greater Toronto provides the tools these youth need to build a better life, all under one roof. At The Wagner Green YMCA, they find emergency shelter and immediate crisis support. But they can also access wrap-around services, such as mental health counselling, substance use referrals, assistance navigating legal issues, help finding long-term housing, and employment training.”

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A holistic approach

The Wagner Green YMCA is an 11,400 square-foot emergency shelter and drop-in centre for youth experiencing homelessness. It’s a diverse and 2SLGBTQIA+ positive space serving the Queen West and Spadina community, and offering 40 shelter beds to youth aged 16 to 24 who identify as male.

“The Wagner Green Y offers a range of support services,” says Nelson Borges, Director of Youth Outreach and Intervention at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. “We recognize that when you’re supporting people, you have to work from a holistic approach, and consider there are many different things going on for a young person.”

Indeed, roughly 80 per cent of The Wagner Green YMCA’s visitors come from some type of family breakdown, whether it’s violence, substance use issues, or mental health issues in the home, or 2SLGBTQIA+ youth coming out and being asked to leave. They need multifaceted supports, and The Wagner Green YMCA offers a range of services around employment counselling, substance use counselling, and auxiliary housing, as well as medical support, mental health support, identification clinics, legal services, and more. The idea is that after finding shelter and support at The Wagner Green Y, youth who were experiencing homelessness will be able to take a big leap and start living independently.

Cultivating belonging

These wrap-around services — which are strengths-based and needs-driven, and represent a more intensive, individualized care management process — support youth for a longer period of time than many other shelters. The Wagner Green Y provides stability by addressing the root causes and obstacles that are preventing young people from living independently.

“The Wagner Green YMCA is more than just a youth shelter,” says Borges. “Obviously, that’s a big piece that we offer, but what we really do here is cultivate a sense of belonging, connection, respect, and dignity for our young people.”

What we really do here is cultivate a sense of belonging, connection, respect, and dignity for our young people.

As youth gain a sense of safety and start working through their traumas, they’re often then ready to move on to other goals, such as getting an education or finding a job, notes Borges. Once they’re ready to move out on their own, they may face additional barriers — like acquiring the household staples needed to get themselves set up in their new apartments, or everyday necessities like transit fare, groceries, and a cell phone. The YMCA supports youth during these transitions, ensuring they have the best possible chances of long-term success. For example, youth can access “moving kits” complete with household necessities like bedding, dishes, cutlery, and more to help them begin building their new lives in their new apartments.

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