A place to grow

HELPING troubled youth get off the street and into a new life has propelled one successful program into an expansion back east.

The Covenant House-Hollyburn Youth Housing program is a partnership between Covenant House, a non-profit agency in Vancouver that provides programs for homeless and at-risk youth, and Hollyburn Properties, a property management company with buildings across Canada. The program, started in 2007, helps three homeless, runaway, or at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 22 get their feet back on the ground by providing a fully furnished apartment, including one on the North Shore, at subsidized rent. The program has become so effective in Vancouver that Hollyburn Properties is now taking it to Toronto.

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"Over the last year we've grown in Toronto and with growth came the opportunity for ourselves and marketing people to take a look and say 'hey this stuff that we're doing in Vancouver we should be doing in Calgary and Toronto,'" says Paul Sander, director at Hollyburn Properties.

The youth are all graduates of Covenant House's shelter and Rights of Passage programs. Participants receive training on budgeting, cooking, cleaning and goal setting, as well as guidance from resident managers that inspect and review suite cleanliness and ensure building rules are being followed. Once participants graduate, they are able to keep the furniture from their apartments and are reimbursed the rent they paid.

"When they graduate out of the program, they get a letter of reference that they're a good tenant. They've learned the valuable life skills, like how to rent an apartment, how to stay in an apartment, and also how to have a good reference, which is important when you get an apartment," says Sander.

The Toronto expansion started in early July and will include a total of four Hollyburn units dedicated to the Covenant House program.

Sander says the idea for the program came from a discussion, more than 10 years ago, amongst staff and managers about homeless youth seen around the various apartment buildings.

"Kids were seen sleeping in parkades and around the back of the building," he says. "People naturally became compassionate about it."

Sander had heard of Covenant House and the work they did. He called them and said he wanted to do something to help.

"Our tenants have kids, our building managers have kids, we're a family business," says Sander. "So the plight of kids on the streets of Vancouver is important to us."

Covenant House was founded in September 1997 and provides services including street outreach/daily drop-in, a crisis shelter that includes 54 beds, counselling services and treatment for substance misuse, and transitional living. The agency takes in more than 1,500 atrisk youth each year. Michelle Clausius, associate director of development and communications at Covenant House, says affordable housing in Vancouver is rare.

"It's also sometimes very difficult for our young people to find an apartment, even if they can afford one because sometimes landlords are hesitant to rent to young people who may have been through a difficult time," she says. "It gives them the opportunity to live independently in a very supportive fashion, so not only are they having the subsidized rent but also they continue to be supported by Covenant House youth workers who will keep checking in with them over that year to make sure that everything is going okay."

Clausius says the Hollyburn Youth Housing program has been very successful.

"Most of the youth have gone on to either stay in their Hollyburn apartment or have found market housing elsewhere," she says, adding that each participant gets at least a year in the apartment. "Sometimes they've even extended it to two years depending on the youth. That year in a well run, well managed building, so they feel safe, they feel supported, it's just amazing."

Hollyburn Properties also supports Covenant House through various other programs, including its monthly clothing donation pickups as well as the annual Christmas Backpack program.

"Covenant House puts lots of kids out into apartments, a big part of their budget goes to furnishing those apartments, so we collect furniture, we collect stuff that kids need in the suites, as well as clothes, etcetera," says Sander. "We have an ongoing relationship with them and as they need things we work with them and it changes from time to time."

Clausius says Hollyburn is extremely generous to the agency.

"The support that Covenant House receives from corporations like Hollyburn is so vital. We're privately funded and we just pass along this goodwill to our youth," she says. "On one hand, yes they are receiving the benefit of this wonderful apartment but they're also receiving a message that the community cares and is invested in their success and for a lot of them that's the first time they've ever heard that message."

Sander says Covenant House needs the support and help to continue running.

"It's back to the philosophy of think globally, act (locally). I'd like to see other people helping in some way too because Vancouver has a huge population of kids on the street, beyond what you would imagine and it kind of slips under the radar," he says. "These are kids that don't fall into the welfare system because they are too young and most of them come from foster care, group home, all those types of places which are unfortunately rife with problems, that's why they're out on the street."

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