National study reveals that help for homeless youth suffers with COVID-19

The research about youth homelessness, mental health and substance abuse was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – When COVID-19 forced frontline workers to shift their support for homeless youth online, the result was more loneliness, more depression, more drug use, more overdoses and more thoughts of suicide, according to new research from Covenant House, Canada’s largest shelter serving young people.

“We need more boots on the ground,” lead researcher Dr. Naomi Thulien told The Catholic Register. “Virtual supports are great, but we need to think of the young people who don’t have access to these supports.”

The study — “Pandemic Proof: Synthesizing Real-World Knowledge of Promising Mental Health and Substance Use Practices for Young People Who are Experiencing or Have Experienced Homelessness” — is being published in two online centres for the study of homelessness, “A Way Home Canada” and “Lived Experience Lab.” The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Thulien, who teaches at Hamilton, Ont.’s McMaster University School of Nursing and also runs a nurse practitioner clinic at Covenant House in Toronto, thought her survey of frontline workers who deal with homeless youth might turn up success stories about online counselling.

“I thought maybe we would learn about some really cool virtual stuff. Instead, what we found was, if I had to use one word, I would say disconnection,” she said. “What keeps coming up is the importance of relationship.”

The 188 frontline workers in nine provinces who took Thulien’s survey told her they worry that kids so poor they are homeless probably don’t have steady, reliable access to the Internet and may not even know their services are available.

“Young people who are the most marginalized are probably not accessing this support,” Thulien said. “Even the young people who are accessing them, there’s concern that a lot of them, just like all of us, are missing that in-person kind of connection.”

The most marginalized include Indigenous, Black and brown, gay and transgendered kids, according to the study.

“Many of the reasons why our young people are struggling with anxiety and depression is because they don’t have enough connections. By that I mean, just connections to mainstream society through employment and education.”

Even before COVID-19, homeless services weren’t having much success transitioning youth out of homelessness.

Current research shows that 76 per cent of young Canadians who have been homeless report at least two failed attempts at exiting homeless.

“They leave the shelters and they come back,” said Thulien. “Why do they come back? Often they can’t afford to live. We haven’t set them up for success.”

Covenant House and other shelters serving youth are not going to end homelessness. It will require governments to fund broader and deeper health and social service systems, said Thulien.

“We (at Covenant House) need to focus our efforts on actually working ourselves out of a job. Not making it so young people will depend on us,” she said.

Brought to Toronto in 1982 on the invitation of Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, Covenant House has supported more than 100,000 homeless young people over almost four decades. Open 24/7, the agency sees more than 300 young people every day.