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True North Living » Community » How YMCA of Greater Toronto Is Helping Ignite the Potential of Youth
Jennifer White ymca gm

Jennifer White

General Manager of Youth Outreach and Intervention, YMCA of Greater Toronto

From emergency shelter to mental health support to employment counselling, the YMCA of Greater Toronto provides critical on-the-ground programs for vulnerable youth.

Since the mid-1980s, the YMCA of Greater Toronto has been supporting vulnerable youth. Between 1,700 to 7,000 youth in Toronto experience homelessness at any given time.

“About 80% of young people that end up in our services come from some type of family breakdown, whether it’s violence, substance use issues, or mental health issues in the home, or 2SLGBTQ+ youth coming out and being asked to leave,” says Jennifer White, General Manager of Youth Outreach and Intervention at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. Sixty-six percent of these individuals don’t have a high school diploma and 77% are unemployed. Through dozens of programs offered at its locations across the GTA, the charity provides services to help young people build a brighter future for themselves.

Winter and COVID restrictions make youth homelessness more complex

The onset of winter, plus the impact of the pandemic, makes the issue of youth homelessness even more urgent. “One of the things that COVID-19 has brought out of the shadows is the many inequities, reminding us that different people have different chances of living a good life in the GTA,” says White. With the physical distancing needed to prevent the spread of the virus many homeless shelters have had to reduce their numbers and work with the City of Toronto and other partners to find alternate safe accommodations. “This has really highlighted that we don’t have enough places and spaces, not just for people in general, but especially for our young people to live,” says White. “With the colder months quickly approaching, it’s more important than ever that young people have access not just to shelter, but to affordable housing.”

The Wagner Green YMCA offers free drop-in programs, sheltering, and more


In 2015, the YMCA of Greater Toronto opened The Wagner Green YMCA in Toronto’s Queen St West and Spadina Avenue community. Situated in an underserved area, The Wagner Green YMCA is an 11,400 square-foot facility providing critical on-the-ground programs for youth in need. “The goal of this program is to support young people in securing and maintaining permanent and affordable accommodation,” says White.

Located at 7 Vanauley Street, The Wagner Green YMCA is a diverse and 2SLGBTQ+ positive space, offering 40 shelter beds to young men ages 16 – 24, where gender is self-identified. In addition to providing emergency shelter and free drop-in services, The Wagner Green YMCA offers a range of support services around employment counselling, substance abuse counselling, and auxiliary housing, along with access to medical support, mental health support, identification clinics, legal services and other services.

Many of these services are offered one-on-one. As for success rates, White explains: “Ninety-five percent of the 70 to 80 young people who come through the employment program each year have a positive outcome, whether it’s getting back into employment, education, or a job training program or accessing mental health supports. From April to September 2021, we’ve supported 1,484 youth and housed 43 youth in that same period.”

As our communities recover and rebuild from the pandemic, the Y relies on public donations to ensure young people have access to these critical services. “The wraparound supports we provide to our youth are really important and can have a significant impact on our community,” says White. “It’s only with support from donors that our charity can continue providing these programs and in turn give more people opportunities to better their lives. I think everyone deserves a chance to shine and the YMCA works to promote equity and boost well-being in the GTA,” says White.

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