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Empowering youth for a brighter future


Story Highlights

  •  Each year more than 1400 young people experience homelessness in Ottawa. A young person going through homelessness is more likely to drop out of school, making it hard to get a good job and financial independence.

  • A safe, affordable and accessible home is the first step in ensuring a stable life, foundational for youth to access employment, educational opportunities and other supports.

  • United Way works with partners like Operation Come Home to give every young person a chance to get the support needed to find a place to live, find employment and other resources needed to thrive as a young adult.

Mahera was six years old when she came with her family to Canada from Sudan. The struggle to find housing in a new country was a stress that Mahera’s parents protected her from. As Mahera grew older, she started to understand what her parents faced and how brave they were to seek help.  “When I grew up and realized everything going on, it lit a spark in me to do the same thing for other families and relieve any stress for kids that may be involved.”  

That spark transformed into Mahera’s current role as a Housing Worker and Drop-In Staff at Operation Come Home (OCH). Mahera offers help to youth ages 16 to 25 who need support in getting housing, employment, mental health and harm reduction at the resource centre in downtown Ottawa. Mahera’s office is adjacent to the main lounge area where youth can drop in, enjoy a meal and spend time with others in a safe space. There are couches for relaxing, guitars, board games and wifi. It’s a welcoming environment where youth can seek support and take some comfort in a nonjudgmental space.

“When it comes to homelessness and youth, a lot of folks tend to double down on stigma, leaving them more isolated.”

United Way works with partners like OCH to help prevent a youth experiencing homelessness from being a homeless adult. Through partnership, collaboration and funding, resources are made available to give every young person a chance to get the support needed to find a place to live, get employment, counseling and other resources needed to thrive as a young adult.  

Why youth leave home

Each year more than 1400 young people experience homelessness in Ottawa. Many factors can drive a young person to leave home including a difficult family life or having survived abuse. 2LGBTQ+ youth may experience discrimination for their sexuality or gender, and leaving the child welfare system means leaving support once they reach adulthood. 

Youth in Ottawa who are experiencing homelessness come from all over. John Heckbert, Operation Come Home’s Executive Director says “40% are coming from outlying areas to Ottawa, because they weren’t able to access services there, or they feel they might be able to get more support here in the city. The majority do come from Ottawa, but every 1 in 10 of our youth are newcomers to the community, so outside Canada. And lately there has been quite a number of youth who come from places like Iran or Syria. We’re also seeing some Ukrainians now, so it’s people from all over.” 

Struggles teenagers shouldn’t have to face

When a young person experiences homelessness, they are more likely to drop out of school, making it hard to get a good job and financial independence. If a person doesn’t have ID, or employment, they might be rejected by a landlord when seeking tenancy.  Identification is needed to open a bank account, employment is required to sign a lease, and affordable housing is needed to stay off the streets. Staff at OCH help ensure certain things are in place for a youth to move forward. 

The biggest struggle Mahera sees with youth coming through the doors is finances. She dedicates time to ensuring young adults have the necessary identification to open a bank account and help them secure employment for stability. Beyond logistics, Mahera offers understanding, fostering an environment of support where youth can share their struggles and aspirations. 

“You just gotta remember that they’re just teenagers. None of them chose to be where they are.”

How we help

With our commitment to impact, our role as community convener, and our collaboration with policy makers and government, United Way East Ontario leverages our network of partners and donors to help our communities come together to get at the root of the issue and create long-term solutions that end youth homelessness for good. This not only shuts the door to chronic homelessness—it saves lives. 

We believe in Housing First – the recognition that everyone should have a roof over their head before they can start to think about education, employment, or other paths forward. Then, we must reach each young person with personalized services that help them reach their goals. 

  • Meeting basic needs 
    Solving homelessness requires a community-wide response that transcends the focus of any one organization or individual. We convene working groups with youth at the table, and together, we advocate to increase affordable housing and resources for children, youth, and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. 
  • Employment as empowerment 
    We power social enterprises that provide youth experiencing homelessness with a steady job and life coaching at the same time. This way, they’re prepared for the workforce and financial independence over the long term. 
  • Housing First, then support 
    We fuel culturally and age-appropriate mental health counselling, education, life, and work skills programs to support youth at-risk of, or experiencing homelessness – because stability and success looks different for everyone. 
  • Making crisis more manageable 
    We invest in parent, child, and youth mental health and substance use counselling, information, and support. This includes leading project step: a community-wide initiative to ensure young people and their families have access to support, treatment, education, and prevention of harms related to substance and technology use.  

The staff at OCH see the potential in youth, and the importance of ensuring housing is in place. “Seeing them hopeful for their future makes me want to do this forever’”, Mahera says. 

Thanks to our donors, our youth benefit from resources and people like Mahera who work to see young people safe and thriving. 

Make a difference in the lives of youth.



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