Job-hunting: How Ontario’s at-risk youth are faring

By Brianne Smith

Despite being a 23-year-old man, in the employment world Lincoln is technically considered a youth. According to Statistics Canada, Lincoln is part of the 15.3 per cent of youth without a job in Ontario. He is also considered an at-risk youth.

As a passionate musician, Lincoln grew up in a household where his mother continuously struggled with addiction, and with a brother who has been in and out of jail for the last 10 years.

Lincoln had difficulty finding employment until his job counsellor put him in contact with the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, where he is currently going through one of its employment programs called Connecting Youth to Work and making minimum wage.

“This is really big for me… I’ve been waiting a long time to really just feel stable,” Lincoln said. “This has gotten me some money in my pocket, and put good people around me. I feel really comfortable here.”

Lincoln is currently working in the kitchen at the Evergreen Centre, a branch of the Yonge Street Mission, while he completes his last three high school credits. The next phase of the employment program is enrolling him in a placement through Starbucks, where he will receive job training and if successful, complete 20 weeks there. The Starbucks placement has a success rate of 87 per cent in seeing youth going to school or getting jobs after the program.

With the youth unemployment rate of 15.3 per cent more than double that of Ontario’s total unemployment, youth have a particularly difficult time securing part-time and full-time jobs. Combined with the multitude of barriers at-risk and homeless youth face, the search for employment for this demographic can be an exhausting process.

Gail Meats, the director of employment services at the Yonge Street Mission, attests to this.

“It’s different for every youth,” Meats said. “Certainly homelessness, lack of job experience, lack of contacts, lack of supports, particularly family supports. And then things like mental health, addictions and involvement with the criminal justice system are all big issues facing these youth.”

In employment standards, youth are generally grouped in the age range of 15-24. According to Service Canada, youth account for nearly 20 per cent of Ontario’s population.

Stephen Gaetz is the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He said the barriers underprivileged youth face makes it exceptionally difficult to break into the employment world.

“Definitely it’s an uneven playing ground. Low-income youth won’t necessarily have the skills or connections, or opportunities,” Gaetz explained. “So there are all kinds of factors that mean that some youth are going to be marginalized and excluded from employment more than others.”

Gaetz is also president of Raising the Roof, an organization that looks at long-term solutions to homelessness. In his book Youth Homelessness in Canada, Gaetz conducted a survey asking Canadians about their views on homeless youth.

In his book, Gaetz stated nearly a quarter of those surveyed believe “people are poor because they are lazy.” Gaetz explained that this is one of the common stereotypes at-risk or homeless youth face as a result of the barriers they are dealing with.

“With homeless youth, people imagine they need motivation,” Gaetz said. “They certainly don’t need motivation, they’re not lazy. The reason they can’t get work or keep work isn’t about laziness, it’s about all these other things that get in the way.”

For potential employers, one of the first things they notice is the appearance of the individual applying for the position.

“In an interview, having this expectation that someone’s going to show up sharp and on-time and dressed properly… someone who is an at-risk youth may not have that much financial opportunities perhaps, or the clothing to distinguish themselves from other candidates applying for the same jobs,” said Sebastien Martin, director of employment services for the YMCA in Ottawa.

Stacey Sutherland works with the employment office at an Ottawa youth resource centre, Operation Come Home. She also addresses the stigmas at-risk and homeless youth face in finding employment.

“Hiring youth in our program, [employers] automatically assume, ‘what’s wrong with them?’” Sutherland said. “There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just having a hard time finding a job. It’s difficult—there’s a big stigma.”

Without paying jobs, it is common for homeless or at-risk youth to turn to criminal activity as a source of income if it means they get to sleep somewhere warm that night. With a criminal record thrown into the mix, the search for a job can become increasingly difficult.

Raising the Roof’s report on Youth Homelessness in Canada stated that “many youth have accumulated criminal records while on the streets, often attempting to survive by becoming engaged in activities such as petty theft, drug dealing, and sex work.”

This is a reality for many youth growing up in low-income households or homes where they don’t have a secure support system. Meats said the Yonge Street Mission deals with a lot of youth who have had previous experience with the legal system.

“We’ve had kids come to us saying, ‘I don’t want to go to jail again’.”

Over recent years, there has been an increased emergence of youth employment programs geared towards at-risk and homeless youth. Many of these programs offer workshops and training for ‘soft skills,’ like résumé help, interview coaching, and career counselling.

On Oct. 1, 2015, the Yonge Street Mission launched a new employment initiative called the Youth Job Connection Program. The organization was chosen as one of the few to take on the province-wide Employment Ontario program. The program is the first of its kind funded by the province.

“It’s targeted to at-risk youth who face a multitude of barriers, including those with criminal records, in addition to those with homelessness and addiction issues,” Meats said.

Hany Ibrahim said there still needs to be a lot more done to aid these youth in finding employment.

“I think they definitely need more support—wraparound support,” said Ibrahim, who works as the program coordinator of youth employment at the Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre in Ottawa. “Sometimes they may be ready for employment but their housing situation might be unstable, financial needs are unstable as well. We try to provide those wraparound supports for them.”

Lincoln is close to finishing his high school diploma, and will shortly be starting his Starbucks placement. He said he’s thankful for the opportunities the employment program at the Yonge Street Mission has offered him, but knows there is still a long road ahead in securing future full-time employment.

“What drives me is the things I’ve been through in my life,” Lincoln said. “Hopefully one day I can make something out of all these experiences.”

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