Last week, a headline was published that was brimming with shock value and brought to light some very uncomfortable truths.
Bloomberg reported that roughly one-third of residents of Covenant House Toronto -- a shelter serving the city’s homeless and at-risk youth -- are students, with a significant proportion being college or university students.
Although there is no data available that tells us exactly how many post-secondary students are reliant on Toronto’s vast network of homeless shelters, there is data that tracks demographics, including the number of homeless youth -- aged 16 to 24 and not admitted by a family program as a dependant -- historically and currently in Toronto’s shelter system. According to that data, there was 823 actively homeless youth as of August 2021. By the end of 2021, that number had increased to 850. This year so far, it rings in at 899.
“The data does show that chronic homelessness is increasing for all ages,” a spokesperson for the City of Toronto tells STOREYS. “As of August 25, 2022, there are 21 youth shelter programs operating at 15 shelter locations. The trend for youth shelter users is consistent with trends across the whole system and stays in shelters are getting longer.”
“Students in shelters, it’s a testament to the lack of policy and to the lack of investments into post-secondary to ensure that we're prioritizing students,” says Nemoy Lewis, Assistant Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). “I know the current National Housing Strategy policies are prioritizing some of the most vulnerable segments of our population, but I also would say that we should be including students in those priorities -- especially considering increases in enrolment and the increased pressure of international students returning to the market as well.”
At the same time, Lewis notes that there isn’t nearly enough on-campus housing supply to meet the expanding post-secondary population.
“This is a market that is very much underserved. In all of Canada, based on the number of beds that are available, I believe the current inventory serves only 15% of the post-secondary population,” he says. And in times of supply-demand disparity, private entities, such as corporate landlords or financial institutions, are much more likely to get involved. “It creates an environment where students could see more unaffordable rents because of the fact that these entities are well-equipped to capitalize on that void within the current market.”
With on-campus housing supply being so scarce, students are turning to off-campus housing, where the circumstances aren’t much better.
“Right now, you have demand outpacing supply, and as a result, students are being forced to compete with the interests of those particular segments of the rental market. So it doesn't present a very good environment,” says Lewis. “I know some universities have been taking steps to build new housing, but the problem is that they're not building enough to keep up with the current demand for housing.”
Jasmine Ramze Rezaee is the Director of Advocacy & Communications for YWCA Toronto. While she can’t speak for a significant population of students in the YWCA’s shelter system -- she says that their shelters are pretty much always at capacity -- she is not surprised that Toronto’s young people are feeling the effects of the overarching affordability crisis.
“Students -- especially from lower-income households, or non-traditional students who might not have the same level of family support -- clearly, they would be more deeply affected,” she says. “In an ideal world, students would focus on education and not be too concerned about how the bills are paid, but that's less of a reality today. Loans or whatever can only go so far in a very heated rental market.”
Rezaee adds that for those who are new to Canada, students included, housing challenges can sometimes be magnified.
"I do think that refugees and people with precarious immigration status and even folks who have not yet obtained their refugee status, deal with a lot of compounding challenges and vulnerabilities because they can't oftentimes access even the minimum level of support that our society provides,” she says. “And it's not uncommon for them to end up in the shelter system.”
So what are schools doing to make sure their students are safely housed?
“Some universities have partnered with private companies to build student housing,” says Lewis. The University of Toronto, for example, has partnered with Knightstone Capital Management to build an affiliated residence across the street from the campus. Knightstone has also partnered with McMaster University and McGill University in past years. “The difficulty though is that we don't know if there are any clauses within these partnerships to ensure that this housing actually remains affordable.”
U of T also began running a program with Canada HomeShare last year, which pairs students with seniors.
Meanwhile, at TMU, plans to dedicate around 570 beds in an on-campus building were recently scrapped.
“It would have helped, especially in the downtown core, but the university has cited rising construction costs as a big issue and the reason they scaled back the plans,” says Lewis. “That's not very welcoming news considering we are increasing our enrolment. I believe there are just over 1,000 beds to fit the demand of 40,000-plus students that are attending the university.”
He adds that TMU is an especially challenging spot, given its location in the downtown core where land in scarce.
“They're competing with the interests of retail developers, condo developers, and office developers who are in need of the same space,” he says. “I think one of the things that we can do as a city is to utilize our inclusionary zoning policies or the City's Open Door policies to help incentivize and prioritize the development of student housing in and around universities. All levels of government should be pitching in to help address this particular need rather than relying on the market to address the problem.”
And if these issues go unaddressed, the potential for brain waste will be high and the ramifications to Canada’s future workforce could be devastating.
“Unless certain new measures are introduced, I only imagine that the situation will get worse,” says Rezaee. “And then more people will be pushed out of the education system because they can't afford the cost of living and paying for their education.”
In her view, a good first step would be to learn more about the students who are turning to shelters. With more information, the government, their schools, and their communities may stand a better chance of helping them.
"Is it because they are, for example, dealing with intergenerational trauma and their homes are no longer safe? Is it a cash flow issue and they need access to cash transfer programs?" she says. "We need a little bit more data or understanding of who these students are who end up in the shelter system and what specific challenges they are facing."