Employment program for Winnipeg youth at risk unless federal funding comes through, RaY says

A Winnipeg non-profit says the clock is ticking on whether it will be able to continue an employment and training program for youth as of next month, due to a delay in federal funding the program has relied on.

Resource Assistance for Youth, or RaY — which helps at-risk youth access support for housing, mental health, addictions and employment — has received funding since 2018 through the federal government’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy program, which is intended to help people ages 15 to 30 overcome employment barriers.

This year, though, RaY is still waiting to find out whether it will get that funding for its Level Up training program, which is scheduled to start June 1.

“We have been in regular communication with our federal contacts and funders, and thus far have been told the delay in receiving notification of funding is due to high levels of applicants in the last application process,” RaY’s interim executive director, Caryn Birch, said during a news conference on Wednesday. 

Without the federal money, RaY may have to discontinue the program and lay off 12 of its 53 staff, she said.

Birch said that the program’s closure would have a “significant impact” on youth who access it to learn life skills before entering the workforce, and on more than 100 partnering business employers.

Portrait of Caryn Birch wearing a black mask.
Caryn Birch, the interim executive director at Resource Assistance for Youth, said the organization applied for funding through the grant last November and is still waiting on a decision. (Submitted by Caryn Birch)

She said the federal government told staff they would have an answer by the beginning of May, which they planned for financially. RaY made its funding application in November, she said.

The organization has never had to wait this long for a decision regarding a grant application and the future of its programming and employment, said Birch, which is causing stress and anxiety. 

A spokesperson for the federal government said they could not immediately respond to CBC’s request for comment on Wednesday.

‘Lives are on the line’: MP

Amid the uncertainty, Birch said Resource Assistance for Youth can likely run programming for a few more months with program adaptations. 

“Last week is when we really had to launch the crunch time, because we want to make sure we can continue to staff … this department,” she said.

“But most importantly, we want to make sure that the participants that access RaY have the ability to continue within this program. They are asking about when we can reopen every day.”

The program has helped more than 775 youth enter the labour market or post-secondary education, Birch said. 

Students stand in a classroom holding framed certificates. Some students wear a graduation cap.
The Level Up program has helped more than 775 youth enter the labour market or post-secondary education, Birch said. (Submitted by Resource Assistance for Youth)

It has two different streams: Lift Off, focused on youth who have had a job before but may have potential gaps in employment, and Launch Pad, which focuses on those exiting Child and Family Services or people who are living on their own for the first time, Birch said. 

Youth are paid a minimum wage to attend a seven-week course where they complete mock interviews, learn how to build a resumé and cover letter, or become certified in first aid and non-violent crisis intervention, before transitioning into a 16-week work placement based on their interests.

The organization provides a subsidy for partnering businesses in the community.

The youth organization received $2.4 million in federal grant money through the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy Program from July 2020 to March 2023, according to a federal government website. Eligible organizations can receive up to $5 million per year through the program.

RaY’s latest funding through the grant ran out on March 31 of this year. It has since been sourcing funds from the province, “but that is only going to carry us so far,” Birch said. 

“Lives are on the line if we fail to get this funding in our community,” said Leah Gazan, who attended the news conference as the NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre, a riding that includes RaY’s Sherbrook Street main location.

“Youth that come to RaY for stability are now in a position where their sense of stability is being impacted because of a failure of the federal government to provide timely responses about funding for these critical programs,” Gazan said. 

She said Winnipeg does not have the “wiggle room” to lose services and resources for young people.