Tessa has been involved in the humanities field for 22 years. Her passion is to help high risk youth reach their goals by helping them navigate around the barriers in their lives and build essential life skills. This passion is what brought her to work for Youth Empowerment & Support Services, where she serves as Manager of the Shelter Programs, including the Nexus 24/7 sleep shelter, the Armoury Resource Centre, and the Cohort Independent Living Program. Tessa believes that collaboration is key to ending systemic homelessness across the city. Tessa received the Commonwealth Gold Medal Award from Canada’s Lieutenant General for her work with the Youth Restorative Action Project.
Over the past 18 months, there have been many adjustments and innovations made in YESS programs. Even looking back to pre-pandemic times, why is it important for youth-serving agencies to be flexible and open to change?
Adaptability has always been an important part of our frontline services. The youth themselves are constantly changing, and as some move on and new youth move in, this creates a shift in both trends and needs which are both influenced by a lot of factors. One year we might be seeing a big push for gang recruitment in the area and we need to pivot our efforts towards a safety and risk-focused programming in mind, another year we might see a spike in interest for going back to school and we pivot towards a stability focus that will drive success there.
The pandemic for us wasn’t an exception to this, but it is a perfect example of what flexibility really means for us. When the pandemic first hit, one of the most urgent issues was that individuals experiencing homelessness suddenly had fewer places to physically be, in the middle of winter. Malls were closed, libraires were closed, all of the safe spaces to loiter simply weren’t accessible anymore. We knew that we immediately needed to modify our operating hours to be 24/7 between our day and night programs so that youth had a space to just exist safely. We also anticipated that there would be many new youth coming through our doors for the first time, with the closures of schools and many people losing jobs. High stress + nowhere to escape to = a breaking point in some households that were already struggling. This is exactly what we saw, a spike in new clients who very likely would never have been in our service if the pandemic had not caused this tipping point to happen. In other words, a spike in clients who were very much not prepared for life on the streets. The population shifts, external risks shift, community supports shift… it’s a fluid environment and we need to remain fluid in order to provide the best version of support for the youth who need us today.
How do youth-serving agencies impact not just youth’s futures, but also the future of the wider community?
A single youth does not exist in a bubble, they have family and friends, they go to school and have jobs, they pass by and interact with many people—just like we all do. They are a part of our community. Pain and suffering are not siloed, when any member of our society struggles it affects us all. Sometimes this is in very direct ways, like when someone who is struggling with severe addictions becomes desperate enough to rob a stranger. Sometimes it’s in more subtle ways, like the high cost of emergency physical and mental health interventions for people experiencing homelessness, and this affects the public budgets which we all pay for. What if we can prevent the residual trauma of events like that community member being robbed by having addictions programs ready and available? What if we can prevent the enormous cost of emergency services for homeless individuals by spending far less money on meaningful prevention and interruption of homelessness?
If we help meet the needs of our most vulnerable, then we lift the entire community at the same time.
Based on the changes you have seen in the youth sector during your career, in what ways do you think this work will continue to evolve, either in the broader sector or specifically at YESS?
I hope to see the sector as a whole pulling away from methods that institutionalize youth. We need more services that directly aim to end chronic underlaying issues that cause cyclical homelessness. We can’t simply have shelters and independent housing—we need to focus on the transitional programs that fit in-between those two points. Programs that build life skills, that offer support rather than coddling, that guide rather than control, programs that create an environment where autonomy and self-reliance can grow and thrive, programs that promote healthy integration into community.