This time last year, Mark, a lanky, soft-spoken 18-year-old, was just another lost youth in the big city – homeless, unemployed and on his own. It wasn’t that he’d left his family – his family had left him. His mom had moved back to her country of origin and parked him with some cousins, who were not exactly thrilled to have him.
Today, Mark has a trade and a future. He wants to do graphic design in a commercial print shop. “When your family won’t look after you, you have to learn how to look after yourself,” he told me.
Mark (not his real name) found a way ahead at Eva’s Phoenix, a youth shelter in Toronto where kids can stay for up to a year. But Eva’s is much more than a roof over their heads. It teaches them how to look after themselves. They learn how to cook, clean, do their laundry, resolve conflicts, save their money, pay their bills and budget. They learn what work they might be good at. Eva’s focuses on moving young adults into skilled trades that have a real career trajectory. “The philosophy is to encourage them to get hands-on and shape their own futures,” says general manager Andrew Macdonald, who radiates intensity and enthusiasm.
Mark lives here along with 49 other kids, in housing that was built inside an old fire-truck repair shop donated by the city. It doesn’t look like an institution. It looks like a streetscape, with small-scale house fronts and flower planters. The kids have their own keys. When the place was built 11 years ago, some of Eva’s clients helped with the construction. One of them, a girl who worked on the drywall team, later went to architecture school. Eva’s other programs reach a couple of thousand kids a year.
Social services come in all shapes and sizes. Some are remarkably effective, and some are not. Some are nimble and creative, and some are not. The best ones change people’s lives. But too many of them mistake activity for results. As Warren Buffett said, “Giving money away is easy. Giving money away well is fiendishly difficult.”
Lots of charities work with youths at risk. But these kids are highly transient. “Probably eight of 10 of these charities will tell us they aren’t able to track anything,” says Greg Thomson, director of research for Charity Intelligence Canada. “Eva’s stands out because they create a connection with the kids, and they’re actually able to demonstrate the impact they have.” That’s why Charity Intelligence has named Eva’s as one of its 33 top charities of the year.
Most youth homeless shelters are basically revolving doors. Eva’s aims to get the kids out of the system. Its approach is impressively entrepreneurial. It has built strong connections with both trade unions and corporations, which are major donors and also potential employers. It even runs a print shop that operates as a regular commercial printer as well as a training school. That’s where Mark is learning the intricacies of print work and quality control. Sometimes the graduates come back to tell their stories. One of them now runs a FedEx shop with a $1.5-million budget.
Good social-service agencies are incredibly important, because the government can’t possibly do what they do. Governments aren’t flexible, efficient or smart enough. But social-service agencies, like everybody else, will have to get much better at what they do. They’ve got to compete harder than ever for donor money. And donors are no longer content with simply feeling good about themselves. They want to know their money’s working hard – for them, and for young people like Mark.