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Youth homelessness in Orillia 'heart-wrenching and deplorable'

'How can we as a city stand by and accept that one quarter of our children ... could be in such an awful predicament?' asks Coun. Jay Fallis

An Orillia city councillor believes the city must take youth homelessness “seriously” and should take “meaningful, rapid action” to address the issue.

The Ward 3 councillor made an impassioned plea to his council colleagues Monday night to advocate for the “vulnerable youth in our community” that are falling through the cracks.

Fallis referenced a 2016 Orillia survey that provided a snapshot of the problem.

That “analysis indicated many youth in the Orillia area are facing turmoil which can result in homelessness,” said Fallis. “Of the 1,864 youth who completed the survey, 510 noted in the last two years, they had been kicked out of their home, run away, seriously considered running away (but had) nowhere to go, had nowhere to stay or (lived) in an unsafe environment.”

(Almost) one in four youth surveyed had been homeless or close to it, he noted.

“This is truly heart wrenching and deplorable,” said Fallis. “How can we as a city stand by and accept that one quarter of our children, a quarter of the next generation coming after us, could be in such an awful predicament?”

That is a sad reality for many youth in the community, Kevin Gangloff, the director of the Orillia Youth Centre, told councillors at Monday night’s council committee meeting.

While he stressed each youth faces unique challenges, about 80 per cent of youth who experience homelessness already experience mental health issues.

When a person is in crisis and homeless, “mental health becomes exacerbated, school is an afterthought,” he explained of the ripple effects.

Stable housing and local, accessible support services are the key, he said.

“Research shows the longer young people are homeless the more apt they are to be adult homeless,” said Gangloff.

“Research has also shown if we get them into stable housing, they do not return to homelessness; that’s key,” he said. “Everything else is secondary to someone experiencing homelesness.”

Gangloff was at city hall Monday to present the third, “and in theory, final” report on the issue.

It’s the culmination of a process that began three years ago, included a local survey, the creation of a task force, wide-ranging public consultation and was capped with a well-attended public forum last year.

The reports and information were to be forwarded to the city’s Affordable Housing Committee.

But council, prodded by Ward 4 Coun. Tim Lauer, agreed to go one step further.

Lauer commended Gangloff and the other committed members of the group behind the youth homelessness initiative for their energy and passion.

“Most of the world has sort of bought into the premise that there is no point in attacking social issues without housing,” said Lauer of what’s known as the housing-first strategy.

But he said he is worried this report could simply “sit on a shelf.”

To ensure that doesn’t happen, he added some teeth to council’s decision by asking the Affordable Housing Committee to come back to council with some suggestions on how to advance the cause.

He said he would like to see the report include “comments regarding what strategies may be possible moving forward.”

At the urging of Ward 4 Coun. Pat Hehn, the reports will also be more widely circulated. She said the information is too important to be confined to city hall.

As a result, the report will be forwarded to an array of local agencies, including the three school boards, the health unit, the Children’s Aid Society and others.

Fallis, who was just elected to council in November, will be the council representative on the Youth Opportunities Committee. He plans to champion the cause and push for more action.

“The reality is, these are vulnerable people, vulnerable kids,” he said, conceding “this is a problem that is not going to be solved overnight with just a report although it’s certainly a good start.”

But it’s only a start, he stressed.

“We need to take meaningful, rapid action and actively pursue creative solutions that will help to alleviate this very serious problem and truly save lives,” said Fallis.