This summer I (Sarah Grant, community member and volunteer with All In) will share some of the details behind the interesting and important work going on in our neighbourhood. First up, is the Kennedy House Youth Shelter, located just north of Food Basics on Pape.
The Kennedy House Youth Shelter has been working with All In since the shelter opened in June 2014. On Fridays you may see Kennedy staff and youth at our Children’s Garden tending to the plants. Recently, the garden beds have been getting a facelift, the designs and painting done by youth who are currently staying at the shelter.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Renee Lavallee, the Housing and Program Coordinator about the shelter and its connection to our community.
The shelter, which has 40 warm beds for youth ages 16 – 24 provides an opportunity for youth who may not currently have access housing. When I asked Renee what success looks like she responded ‘It’s about each individual. Some youth may have a goal of finding housing, other to return to school. As long as they are working towards their goals and making progress every day that’s success.’
Youth come to the shelter through a myriad of channels, for example they could be referred by other agencies, through word of mouth, or the city’s central intake. The youth shelter, which started at 23 beds, has grown to 40 beds to keep up with growing demand. Renee and the other staff at the Youth Shelter see that the problem isn’t enough shelter beds, it’s a lack of affordable housing in Toronto. Renee feels somewhat hopeful as there seems to be a growing recognition of the housing crises by city level politicians.
In the meantime, Renee and other Kennedy House staff, continue to work hard every day to connect youth with services that may help them find housing, employment or return to school. The shelter also provides practical life skills such as financial literacy and budgeting, conflict resolution, cooking, grocery shopping. When asked about the most rewarding part of her job, Renee answered ‘it’s seeing kids participating in programs and laughing. In that moment it isn’t about the stress in their life.’
The staff at the shelter don’t want to just run a program here in the Pape and Cosburn neighbourhood but see the relationship with the community as very important. ‘When the shelter first opened there was some apprehension by the community. We are really proud of the work we’ve done here and take our work seriously. The guidelines we have for the residents extend into the community and we want the community to know that we are holding the residents accountable and supporting them to become healthy contributing members. We have an open door policy so people can come in (or call) with complaints or to talk. The one thing we ask is that people give us the opportunity to address the issue.’
Beyond the details of the youth shelter, our conversation helped me gain an appreciation for both Renee and the youth. Renee describes herself as someone who didn’t make great choices when she was younger and didn’t fit into a traditional path, so the field seemed a natural fit for her. She’s been with the shelter since 2014. Before then she worked in a women’s shelter and Kennedy House’s secure custody unit since 2011. When asked what she’d do with extra time (if she had it) she said work more and go to the gym.
As for the youth, I sometimes see them hanging around in the Children’s Garden. Renee remind me that the youth who are staying there are not scary, criminals or bad people and that homelessness is not their choice. They may have made some bad decisions in their life (or may have been born into unfortunate circumstances) but are asking for help and are trying to do better.
Renee said she feels grateful for the opportunity to work for an agency that is supportive of the clients they are servicing and is motivated by the possibility of making a change in somebody’s life. With a teenage daughter of her own, Renee often thinks that should something happen to her, she’d want to know that there was somebody who cared about her daughter as much as the Kennedy House staff cares about these kids.
You can expect to see Renee and other Kennedy House staff at our annual Harvest Festival this September 23rd.