Photos by Nick Iwanyshyn

On a spring evening in 2016, Jeneace Nickle made the call: she needed to get out. She and her mother had always been prone to bickering, the kinds of disagreements any 17-year-old has with a parent. This time, though, the argument left Nickle feeling unsafe, and she needed stability for her infant son Romario. She dialled the number to Toronto Central Intake on her cell phone and begged for a new place to stay. It was 10 p.m., and most shelters were full for the night. “Please,” she told the worker over the line, “I don’t care how far it is, I just need a bed. I can’t do this anymore.”

They directed her to a Scarborough shelter with an open spot — a rarity — across the city from her mom’s home. She didn’t know anything about the east end, but she knew she had to accept the offer. She stood by the door, Romario on her hip, waiting for a ride from her ex-boyfriend’s sister. Then they rode together, for a half-hour, to Midland and Ellesmere. Nickle gave herself a pep talk in the passenger seat of the car, only momentarily embarrassed that she was whispering to herself. You got this, girl, she repeated. You can do this. Nickle and her son arrived just before the midnight intake cut-off and walked into their new room on the third floor of the building for the first time. Inside was a bed, a kitchenette, a tiny closet to stow away belongings — all the makings of a comfortable place to stay. But it was far away from her beloved neighbourhood, her family, her routine. For Nickle, it didn’t feel like home.

It wasn’t the first time Nickle had been in a shelter. The teenager had spent much of her life moving from one precarious housing situation to the next. When she was a child, her mom had taken her and her sister to a shelter in Kitchener to escape an abusive relationship. As a teenager, Nickle had bounced between living with her boyfriend and her father. When she got pregnant, her mother had hopped on a flight from Edmonton to be with her. The two of them ended up in a downtown, family-oriented shelter until her mother found an apartment for the family. Now, though, the teen was leaving again, headed down a familiar path.

At the Scarborough shelter, Nickle tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for her son. They were surrounded by other mothers and kids. The shelter provided paint and Play-Doh to keep little ones busy. But by the time the pair fell into a comfortable routine, shelter staff began pressing her to move on. Shelters are intended to provide short-term boarding, and seven months had passed. “Have you found housing?” counsellors would inquire. The answer was always no; waiting lists for affordable housing are long and slow-moving, and traditional rentals were far out of Nickle’s budget. Pressure was mounting, but Nickle had nowhere to go.

Nickle is part of an often-overlooked population of street-involved mothers, young women without fixed addresses who struggle to find permanent, safe housing in which to raise their children and start their adult lives. A study by Toronto Public Health epidemiologist Joyce Bernstein found that in 2012, 289 babies were born to under-housed women — that’s more than one baby born every other day of the year. As the rental market in Toronto skyrockets and the competition for housing gets fiercer, women like Nickle wind up in shelters without long-term plans — not for a lack of willingness but a lack of resources. In best-case scenarios, young mothers find help among the dozens of community organizations lobbying on their behalf for increased income support and available housing. In the worst cases, they fall prey to the city’s inadequacies, calling the streets home.

***

Nickle, now 19, is the first to admit her faults, however minor for a teenager. In high school, she ran with the wrong crowd — drinkers and smokers who encouraged her to skip class. She and her boyfriend were in an on-again-off-again relationship and were sexually active, but decided not to use birth control. She knew it was a risk — her older sister got pregnant at 15 years old — but she took it anyway.

When she had the first inkling that she might be pregnant, Nickle took multiple pregnancy tests; they all came back positive. Her boyfriend took it well. “We knew what we were doing,” she says. “So we owned up to our responsibility of becoming parents, even though we were young.” They discussed abortion and adoption, but neither felt right to Nickle, a devout Christian. At 16, Nickle had decided: she was going to be a mom.

While her family and partner were supportive, her school wasn’t. A few months into her pregnancy, Nickle told her principal that she was expecting but still wanted to further her education. The school administration had other plans. The next day, Nickle was ushered down to the school’s child and youth worker’s office, where she was presented with a spread of information pamphlets and forms. Nickle could keep studying as a young mom, the youth worker suggested, but not at the local high school. Nickle flipped through the pamphlets and hastily landed on the June Callwood Centre for Young Women, or Jessie’s. She liked the sound of the name, and its programs would allow her to earn enough credits for a high-school diploma. The youth worker made calls to the centre, and Nickle left her high school for the last time.

At Jessie’s, Nickle found some semblance of structure. The centre, situated at Queen and Parliament amid convenience stores and high-rise apartment buildings, was founded in 1982 for young women like Nickle who find themselves pregnant and without direction or the resources to stay afloat in a city as expensive as Toronto. Counsellors help women find a place to stay, offer warm meals, and provide pre- and post-natal care that teenagers, often aficionados of junk food and late nights, sometimes overlook. Nickle was assigned to a counsellor and a pre-natal program, and started classes almost immediately. From the shelter, and later her mom’s home, she made the trek downtown multiple days a week, taking high-school courses and learning what to expect as a teen mom. “I didn’t have much to complain about,” Nickle admits. She had a healthy a pregnancy and by the time Romario was born, she had three high-school credits to her name.

Organizations like Jessie’s have taken on much of the burden of caring for street-involved young mothers. No one knows the issue better than Yvette Roberts, coordinator of the Toronto network Young Parents No Fixed Address (YPNFA). For more than 20 years, Roberts has met with health care providers and support organizations to help pregnant teens and young mothers. Back in 1997, YPNFA first convened when the number of young street-involved mothers seemed to be on the rise. Social workers, shelter counsellors, and epidemiologists were seeing more and more cases of teen pregnancy among Toronto’s under-housed. Later in the year, the unthinkable happened: baby Jordan Heikamp, born to a 19-year-old homeless woman living in a shelter, died of malnutrition. An inquest into his death propelled experts, many of whom would later join YPNFA, to begin discussing the issues and determining how to prevent future tragedies.

For young families who are street-involved or living in insecure housing, health risks abound. According to a 2016 report from national charity Raising the Roof, single mothers who are inadequately housed are more likely to experience mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That can, in turn, lead to negative outcomes in their children. They might struggle more in school, suffer from emotional and behavioural disorders, or have issues with attachment and security. Parents who struggle to afford housing often also have issues with food insecurity, which can also lead to malnutrition or obesity in youth. And for children already living with chronic health conditions — even some as easily treatable as asthma — insecure housing can exacerbate or worsen the problems.

For young families who are street-involved or living in insecure housing, health risks abound.

These days, the number of street-involved youth who are pregnant or parents has dropped slightly. Roberts attributes it to changes in attitude among young women, who may feel more empowered and seek other options, like Plan B or abortions. But the group remains high risk. Often, she says, it’s a systemic cycle. Young women raised in poverty are five times more likely to wind up pregnant. The drop-out rates are higher (YPNFA members see at least 100 women drop out of high school every year). Many have little to no familial support, and very few seek out pre- and post-natal care. Ishita Aggarwal, who founded a program for homeless young mothers called Mom’s The Word, also notes that many of these women are sexual assault survivors, substance users, or working in the sex trade, setting them up for even greater experiences of trauma and discrimination.

Without Jessie’s, Nickle admits things may have wound up differently. She might not have continued her schooling, had a healthy pregnancy, planned for her future. She is among the fortunate.

***

When the Scarborough shelter where Nickle was living in 2016 started pressing for her to find permanent housing, she spent most of her days crying and praying. If renting an apartment feels difficult for an adult Torontonian earning a salary, there are even fewer options for a single teenage parent not yet out of high school and without income outside of government assistance.

Nickle was on a wait list for affordable housing in the city, but the supply could never meet the growing demand, and as a healthy young person she was far from a priority case. For a time, counsellors suggested looking at traditional rentals in the city. Nickle was hesitant — Toronto’s rental market was skyrocketing — but agreed to look. She headed with a counsellor to Jane and Finch, an area where she had grown up. At first, a spark of excitement charged through Nickle — perhaps, she thought, she could bring Romario back to her childhood neighbourhood. That quickly dissipated when she learned how much rent was — $980 for a small one-bedroom, nearly twice the price she remembered her family paying as a kid.

At the time, Nickle was receiving about $900 a month in government assistance. She knew there was no way to afford rent for a small west-end apartment on her budget, let alone transportation, groceries, and other basic needs. Still, she took home the applications in hopes of keeping the shelter counsellors sated. “I felt so discouraged and depressed just making my way back from that,” Nickle says.

If renting an apartment feels difficult for an adult Torontonian earning a salary, there are even fewer options for a single teenage parent not yet out of high school and without income outside of government assistance.

YPNFA’s Roberts says finding affordable housing is the most pressing issue for young street-involved mothers in Toronto. Solutions are often short term. It’s not unusual to see women hopping from shelter to shelter, or from homes to shelters and back, with their kids in tow. Long-term, more permanent solutions have become even scarcer. “Right now it’s more of a competition than ever before to find suitable, decent, and affordable housing,” Roberts says. Toronto’s population is aging and seniors are seeking affordable long-term care. The wait list for city-owned affordable housing is miles long, with those in only the most dire of situations prioritized. And with the real estate boom driving up the cost of rent, there are fewer and fewer affordable places to live for those on a fixed income.

After weeks of searching for a permanent home, Nickle felt defeated. She’d had a long day of classes at Jessie’s, and she was sick to boot. But during a trip to the bathroom, she found her answer: a poster advertising a two-bedroom apartment at the centre, part of Jessie’s non-profit housing. Nickle says it was a sign from God, divine intervention. She burst into tears. She ran to her counsellor’s office, begging to fill out the paperwork so she might be considered for the apartment. Within weeks, the place was hers.

The apartment is, by Toronto standards, a gem. There are marble countertops, hardwood floors, new appliances, and plenty of room for a young boy to grow up. Rent is geared to income, never greater than 30 per cent of the tenant’s gross monthly earnings. It’s just one of 16 units. And the spot is permanent — Nickle is not on a deadline to leave, so she can spend her time planning what’s next in life rather than the next roof over her head.

Most importantly, she adds, Romario is happy. He has his own bedroom, a place for him to play with his toys, to run around and blow off his seemingly never-ending energy. The apartment is just a brisk walk away from his daycare, and the pair have fallen into a comfortable routine, returning home at the end of the day to spend quality mother-son time. In photos, Romario is often beaming, standing tall in his new home. “That’s all I wanted,” Nickle says.

***

Nickle has become somewhat of a spokeswoman for Jessie’s, and employees agree she’s a success story. Not all young moms finish high school, find a home, or even keep their children in their custody. The odds are stacked against them, and it’s often only with the support of community organizations that they remain healthy and housed.

But it would be an oversight not to mention the strength of the women themselves. As Roberts puts it, these young mothers are some of the most resilient women in the city, teens and young adults who have taken brutal obstacles and turned them into fuel to keep going. “It’s amazing, for many of these young women pregnancy has changed their life for the better,” Roberts says. “Many say: ‘It’s difficult, it’s not what I would recommend, but it’s the baby that’s helped me to achieve more goals.’”

No one encapsulates this better than Nickle. In June, she graduated from high school, a feat that once seemed so far and out of reach. Romario will turn three in September, and he’ll start school in a year. Nickle hopes to apply to Seneca College’s two-year cosmetic management program. In the meantime, she hosts a weekly radio show called Powerful by Nature with other young women from the centre on the community station Radio Regent. The show touches on issues that matter to young parents — the stigma of teen pregnancy, the importance of self-care, and abusive relationships.

When asked to describe what teen parenthood looks like to her, Nickle has no shortage of adjectives. “A real teen mother is someone who loves her child, someone who has a bright future ahead of them, someone who is ambitious, strong-minded, vocal, positive…” Then, her phone rings. It’s Romario’s dad, calling about her son. The interview is wrapped; for Nickle, Romario will always come first.