A crisis of youthful poverty

By Simon Nattrass, April 2012

Why are there hundreds of young people living on the streets of the CRD?

SINCE LEAVING HOME AT 13, Dianne* has divided her life between shelters, care homes, and the street. She’s 20 now, and has just left Holly House—a girl’s home run by Threshold Housing Society—for a detox facility. Dianne’s life will be unstable while her case worker looks for another supportive living space, but she says things have been worse—for a long time, her life revolved around her addiction. “I spent most of my time trying to score, most of my time using. Everything revolved around using and getting dope, using dope, being dopesick and trying to get un-dopesick and getting clean, relapsing and getting clean again. That was my life for a long time.” (*The young people in this story are real but we've changed their names to respect their privacy.) 

Since moving into Mitchell House—the boys’ counterpart to Holly House—Jason has had to deal with what has become an unofficial rite of passage for youth in state care: the process, or lack thereof, of “ageing out” once he hit 18. Jason was lucky—his social worker managed to cobble together enough money to secure a place at Mitchell House and cover his first month’s rent before he could receive income assistance. Most youth who have been wards of the state (i.e living in foster or group homes or a number of other related programs) simply see their support—financial and otherwise—evaporate. The result is that half of all such BC youth spend some time on the street. 

Most other young people end up there because they’ve been kicked out or are trying to escape an abusive situation.

Threshold specializes in serving youth aged 16-21, young people like Jason who are just beginning to fall through the cracks. The goal of the organization is to encourage independence—youth staying at one of the organization’s two houses have to make rent, buy groceries, and deal with all of the day-to-day responsibilities of life, albeit with the support of one of Threshold’s resident youth workers. “From our point of view, the pillar of getting your life back together is stable housing,” says Mark Muldoon, executive director at Threshold Housing Society. “We see so many kids coming in here carrying a trauma load, anxious about where they’re going to be, how long they can stay here. How do you expect these kids to get their life together?”

Seventeen-year-old Stella, a resident of Holly House, took years to gather up the courage to leave an unsafe home situation. Citing pure luck, after two weeks in a youth shelter, Stella found her place at Threshold. Her eyes light up when she talks about how she’s used her experience as a chance to grow. “You force yourself to look back and you become mature. You have to worry about money and jobs—you look back on yourself and now you have to improve. It forces you to think about who you are.”

Outside of sparse housing opportunities like Threshold (whose two homes house only eight youths at a time), there are still an estimated 620 youth dealing with the reality of homelessness in the region according to the CRD’s 2008 analysis—the most recent comprehensive look at Victoria’s homeless youth population. There are only 16 transition housing beds dedicated for youth in the whole CRD. The entire range of youth-specific services in our region only addresses around seven percent of this population, with the remainder sleeping rough or staying at shelters with their many limitations, lack of safety, and exposure to drug use. 

Without exception, every youth I spoke to who had spent time in a shelter had a horror story to relate. Dianne had the most experience: “It’s mainly just safety stuff, your stuff is always getting stolen or you might get hurt.” Stella, the young girl from Holly House, agreed: “[when I’m in a shelter] I’m constantly making sure that I’m aware of my surroundings and not inviting people to take advantage of me.” (There is a shelter—Out of the Rain—devoted to youth only. From November through April 15, it opens each night in a different facility at 10 pm.)

After being kicked out of his parents’ house at 15, another Threshold resident, Adam, spent close to a year on the streets, sleeping mostly in Beacon Hill Park with a few short stints in supportive housing. He comments: “Sometimes it’s pretty alright, mainly because we have a nice climate and we have a separation between sort of sketchy services like Our Place and less sketchy services like church programs that will put on food and stuff for youth. Sometimes it was pretty messed up, but it kinda depends where you’re sleeping. Occasionally I would stay at people’s houses, but I was kind of uncomfortable with that because it’s putting unfair pressure on people. I mainly slept in Beacon Hill Park, which sometimes isn’t so bad.”

Even though life on the street is different for every young person, their struggles have common themes. Everyone I spoke to had a story about the hostility of busy shelters, the prejudice and mistrust of potential landlords, the scarcity of resources for youth, and the cold bureaucracy of the Ministry—obstacles that would wear out the strongest of us. But no matter where these stories go, they all start with the same basic reality—for these youth, home is simply not an option, a fact that the Ministry of Children and Family Development often fails to grasp. Encounters like Adam’s are all too common among homeless youth: “The Ministry literally wouldn’t look at me because my parents said they wanted me back. I feel it’s safer for me to be living on the street than to be living in my house, and that says something.”

Where once young people could approach the Ministry for a “youth agreement”—essentially welfare for independent youth—the process has become too onerous for youth already burdened with the day-to-day ordeals of street life. Like Adam, many youth don’t bother pressing the Ministry for assistance, opting instead for the streets, or if very lucky, organizations like Threshold Housing. Mark Muldoon says, “The threshold for getting a youth agreement now is quite high, so the number of kids that qualify has dropped dramatically.” He notes that whereas in the past, a lot of Threshold’s residents came through the Ministry—“which meant they came with money for food and rent—now we’ve found that a lot of kids who knock on our door are self-referrals, they just need a place to stay.” 

Both service providers and youth themselves seem to agree on their needs. Victoria Foundation’s 2011 Youth Vital Signs report found that youth housing and homelessness tied with poverty as the top areas of concern for youth. Minimum wage jobs, low welfare rates (assuming they can get a job or welfare), and high rents conspire to challenge all youth who lack parental support. 

Homeless kids don’t want to be on the street, but they do want freedom and independence. Theirs is not a crisis of direction or maturity or lack of discipline, but rather a crisis of maturing under an unsupportive, inflexible and impersonal system. They need the resources to feed, clothe and shelter themselves while establishing their independence. While the broader homeless community suffers with chronic drug abuse and mental illness, the coherent, responsible, intelligent youth who call the streets home see these problems as merely the natural result of being denied a chance at a normal life.

If the real crisis homeless youth face—the crisis of poverty—could be dealt with directly, chances are they can have that normal life and avoid the chronic problems of life on the street. As my interviews with both youth and people like Mark Muldoon suggest, they are responsible and—if given a chance—able to do what they want: take care of themselves and their community, just like the rest of us.

 

On April 20-22, Belonging: A Victoria Youth Homelessness Summit will be held at Victoria’s Odd Fellows Hall. See www.belongingvictoria.com. Further info on Threshold Housing Society is at http://thresholdhousing.ca.

Simon Nattrass is a freelance writer living and working in Victoria BC.