Recipe for success

CookingForLifeCovenant House Toronto’s Cooking For Life program trains homeless youth for a career in the food industry. In its first two years, this innovative job training program helped over 65 at-risk youth find employment.

Homeless youth are a unique population that needs specialized support. Simply focusing on job skills is not enough to make this group successful. We have compared Cooking For Life with two other effective homeless youth job training programs, Train for Trades in St. John’s, NF and Access Bladerunners in West Vancouver, BC, both training youth for jobs in the construction industry.1 We looked at the common elements that make these programs successful. These can provide a roadmap for the development of homeless youth job training programs Canada-wide.


Top 10 common elements of successful homeless youth job training programs:

  1. Hands-on supportive classroom environment—Participants work with actual work equipment to learn hard skills and soft skills. Within the classroom, participants are taught to work with structure and rules that simulate the work environment. Working closely with each other every day teaches youth teamwork, leadership, anger management and patience.
  2. Dedicated youth worker(s)—Programs have full-time youth workers that the kids can access (sometimes 24/7). Homeless youth have struggles that are both professional and personal. Youth worker(s) have on-the-job work experience, as well as certified skills to support kids with other personal issues.
  3. Hands-on repetitive tasks—Many youth struggle in a traditional classroom setting. Repetition ensures they know skills by rote before they enter job placements. Their confidence builds with their competence. The program is structured to let participants practice as much as possible before they are at a workplace.
  4. Community partnerships—Job placements come from like-minded employers in the community. It is critical that graduates move into job placements with sympathetic employers who know some of the challenges homeless youth face. If participants experience a setback, they must be met with understanding and be able to try again.
  5. Focus on foundational basics—Participants are trained with specialized equipment, so they go into the work environment with skills and certifications that other entry level applicants don’t necessarily have. This solid training not only builds the confidence of the participants, but also makes the youth more desirable to potential employers.
  6. Pay them—Kids can’t commit to a program if they don’t have money for basic life expenses.
  7. Feed them—Youth can’t focus on their work if they are hungry. Programs include at least one full meal a day.
  8. Stable housing—Several studies on homeless youth show that stable housing is a key requirement for any program to succeed. Without a reliable home to go to, youth are unlikely to complete the program.
  9. Social environment—Youth need to be part of a close knit group to give them a place of belonging. These programs all offer an intensive team environment that is supportive and accepting of youth as they are.
  10. Individualized program—Each youth is unique. Being able to cater to each youth’s individual circumstances is essential. In the case of Cooking for Life, Covenant House also looks for job placement opportunities specifically based on what the youth’s interests are.

1 Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy & Practice, Canadian Homelessness Research Network, 2013.


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