It’s been a long day. Your feet are killing you and winter is setting in. You’re not sure where you’ll sleep tonight, or when your next meal will be. You’re tired of relying on acquaintances for favors. You’d rather be able to go home like anyone else. Most kids might wish for an ipod this Christmas, but all you want is a pair of clean socks. Last night’s shelter wasn’t as friendly as you had imagined. How long will this go on?

For youth on the streets, survival is an art. It requires resilience, creativity, and luck. Becoming homeless isn’t an easy choice—sometimes it’s not even a choice. Many young people won’t, or can’t go home due to an abusive or absent family. Yet the longer they stay on the streets, the harder it is to leave.

Mental illness is not uncommon. Whether the cause of their original flight or an outcome of the stresses of street life, depression and substance abuse are widespread. St. Michael’s Hospital psychiatrist Dr. John Langley specializes in homeless youth. He estimates that five to 15 per cent suffer from severe mental illness. Since most psychiatrists for children treat patients up 16 years of age, and psychiatrists for adults will normally treat those 25 and up, few practitioners are trained to treat youth between the ages of 16 and 24. This significant gap is an important transition time for many young people, when it is easy to feel vulnerable. Perhaps more significant, It is also the onset period for some severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

According to Langley, of the approximately 32,000 individuals who used homeless shelters in 2002, 6,000 to 7,000 were youth. These statistics don’t include the young people living under the proverbial bridge. There are 12 youth shelters in Toronto, ranging from the less restrictive YMCA to the structured, long-term Covenant House. Beyond basic services, programs directed at homeless and at-risk youth aim towards job training and continuing education. Phoenix Print Shop provides accommodation as well as training in the printing business, giving youth the skills and confidence to pursue work later on.

Toronto United Way President Frances Lankin praisesd these initiatives for their “holistic” approach. “All of them are focused on kids who are struggling in their life, and for whom the traditional mainstream institutions of secondary school and regular employment centres are failing them. There’s more challenges in their life, and more supports that they require,” she said.

Rudy Ruttiman, Executive Director of SKETCH, also finds institutional systems limiting. “We have built services and systems and schools on the lack in people […] as opposed to the asset-based [approach],” she said. SKETCH is a Toronto-based arts initiative, providing drop-in studio hours, art supplies, and lunch to at-risk youth. SKETCH staff help participants turn inborn talents into real-life skills, creating opportunities for jobs and further education. Work from SKETCH artists has been featured in galleries across the city. Founded 1996 by Phyllis Novak, the initiative began as a workshop for women battling drug addiction. One of SKETCH’s first culture-makers is now earning her PhD.

“Because of what they’ve been through, whatever led them to making the decision to live homeless, means they’re quite resilient, they know how to get by on very little,” said Ruttiman. “We know they’ve got a lot to offer, we know they’re incredibly creative.”

Many ignore the potential of young people categorized as homeless, seeing them as more of a nuisance than an asset to the community. The stigma surrounding life on the street is a limiting factor for youth looking to reorient their lives. “When we see someone on the street, we automatically make decisions about who they are,” says Ruttiman. “The myth is that they’re choosy and they’re lazy and they don’t want to get a job.”

“When we work with people in the community, we find people who really want a normal life,” Lankin added. Building skills and confidence in the arts is one way SKETCH starts its participants on a path to greater stability and self-sufficiency. Originally from Lima, Peru, Rosa (last name withheld) came to Canada eight years ago. Now 25, she has studied fashion design at the Toronto Institute of the Arts, learning silkscreening, collage, and installation through SKETCH. She hopes to start an online business in secondhand clothing designs and accesssories. Before entering the program, Rosa says she felt rejected by mainstream employers because of her unusual appearance. “People shouldn’t judge by the way you look, just how you act and relate to other people,” she said.

For youth still struggling, the solution doesn’t come easy. Langley points out that the major gap in care is a lack of long-term youth addiction treatment centres. No such programs exist in Toronto, and addiction centres throughout Ontario have waiting lists of up to six months. Ruttiman points to a need for preventative and rehabilitative care. “They’re doing the only thing they know how to do in those big infrastructures. They’ll put a band aid on it […] but it doesn’t stop the root of the problem.” Lankin argues that a lack of affordable housing perpetuates the problem.

SKETCH was one of the arts programs threatened by the Conservative government’s proposed funding cuts. Homelessness affects 300,000 Canadians of all age groups, a statistic that prompted the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee to declare homelessness a “national disaster” a decade ago. Creative initiatives offer new approaches to community development and rehabilitation. When asked about her solution, Rosa’s answer is simple: “Support the arts!”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required