April 14, 2024

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Downtown Toronto has a new health and dental centre, offering free care to youth who need it

Downtown Toronto has a new space where street-involved youth can get check-ups, dental care and access other health services — all for free.

Earlier this week, The Yonge Street Mission (YMS) opened the Richard and Lorelei Jenkins & Family Health and Dental Centre at its Evergreen Centre for Street-Involved Youth in Chinatown.

The new health and dental centre takes up an entire floor and opens next week — serving young people, between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, who are in precarious living situations. That means those who couch surf or stay in shelters, as well as those who sleep rough on the street.

In addition to a nursery for clients’ children, the centre also offers eye exams, physiotherapy, mental health care, podiatry and chiropractic services, mostly provided by volunteers. 

YSM has offered this care to youth for decades, but space was limited until now.

The old space was “a 700-square-foot kind of basement,” said June Zhang, a nurse practitioner who manages the centre. It had only one room for physiotherapy, naturopathy and chiropractic, she said, meaning only one service could be provided at a time.

The new 4,600-square-foot floor, “gives us a space that we can really feel comfortable in and feel like we are really equipped to deliver the best quality care that we can,” she said.

Zhang says the larger space also gives clients more privacy when discussing medical issues.

Volunteer Beth Hayhoe says the new centre shows clients they deserve a dedicated space for their well-being. She says more rooms like this one allow more volunteers to provide more types of care at one time. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

New space is empowering: NP volunteer

Nurse practitioner Beth Hayhoe started volunteering at the health clinic nearly 30 years ago, at its original Yonge Street location.

She says many clients have grown up on the margins of society, with little encouragement from the people in their lives. She says a full floor, newly renovated and dedicated solely to them changes that.

It shows clients “they’re valuable enough to make this beautiful place for them and to have people come and take care of them.”

Hayhoe says she hopes that making services available simultaneously will mean clients can now use the centre for regular, preventative care, not just their more urgent care needs.

A dental chair is empty in a brightly lit white clinical room.
The new centre has two dental chairs, where the old centre had only one. YSM CEO Angie Peters says dental care is popular among clients, most of whom lack coverage. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

Although definitive numbers are hard to come by, the city’s last point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness in April 2021 found 11 per cent of roughly 7,300 survey respondents were between the ages of 16 and 24. 

Local charity, Youth Without Shelter, estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 youth are homeless in Toronto on any given night.

In the last year, both Hayhoe and Zhang say they’ve noticed an increase in young refugees accessing care at the clinic.

Goal is to help youth escape homelessness

YSM CEO Angie Peters says she expects the new centre’s larger capacity won’t stop lines from forming each afternoon. But she does hope it will help more young people get the care they need and — through in-house wraparound supports such as employment and housing services — help them transition to more stable situations.

The facade of a cement building reading Y-M-S Evergreen Centre. The day is grey. The building is on a city sidewalk. A pedestrian passes the building
The new health and dental centre takes up one whole floor of the Yonge Street Mission’s Evergreen Centre for Street-Involved Youth in downtown Toronto. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

Ray Cola says YSM’s health-care services helped her survive when she was 16 and had first moved to the city. 

“My back hurt a lot,” she said of her time living on the street. 

“It takes a physical toll on your body, just being out and about and, you know, precariously housed.”

Cola says the centre helped her take care of herself while she worked toward a more secure future. 

Now 26, she says she’s found an apartment and a family doctor, and she hopes the health and dental centre expansion will help more young people in precarious living situations get to where she is.

“If they can really take care of themselves during the day and get back on their feet, they can escape homelessness,” she said.

Construction of the $3 million centre was funded entirely by private donations. It’s run by a small staff, but most care is provided by volunteer health-care workers. 

Peters says YSM is “in heavy recruiting” for volunteers.