The flashing billboards, splashing water fountains and shiny buildings that transformed Yonge Street in the last decade have pushed homeless youth into the nooks and crannies of downtown west of Spadina Avenue, a new study shows.

Research by Public Interest, Yonge Street Mission, and World Vision found that while 30 per cent of “street involved” youth still hang out in the downtown core, 25 per cent preferred the area from Dufferin Street to Spadina and south of Bloor Street because it has a better “vibe” than Yonge Street.

Karen Bach, the mission program officer at the Yonge Street Mission, said the shift west has never been documented until now.

She said the western side of downtown was traditionally a popular spot for so-called squeegee kids, but in the last decade, it has become home to runaway teens, punks and youth with nowhere else to turn.

The west end is kinder to homeless youth, said John Blake, who hangs out near the Parkdale Library on Queen Street, just west Dufferin Street. Blake, 25, is originally from St. John, N.B., where he bounced from one foster home to another. He moved to Toronto some five years ago and has mostly lived on the streets.

He used to be in the Yonge-Gerrard area but moved west. “People are generous here even in the recession. There are fewer cops and we don’t get hassled too much. There are many, many of us here.”

Sean Meagher, the president of Public Interest, said there is still demand on Yonge, but more outreach is needed to keep up with the drift west. “We need to keep up with mobility of youth with mobility of service.”

Study recommendations

• Agencies should link youth with some form of housing and support system in their first three months on the street, and intensify efforts to help youth who have been homeless for less than two years.
• Services for immigrant youth should be designed to respond to their distinct needs.
• Prevention programs for 12 to 15 year olds should be on a national scale since so many youth end up in Toronto.
• Special attention should be paid to youth younger than 16 as their prospects for housing are worse.
• Shelters need less drama, noise and crises so youth will feel safer. Safety is correlated with school attendance and employment.

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