A recipe for homelessness

By Simon Nattrass, December 2012

Young people on the streets are often denied support by the very Ministry that’s supposed to help them.

In 2008, a conservative estimate by the Community Social Planning Council placed the number of homeless youth in the Greater Victoria region at 616. Educated guesses place that number higher today. The Council readily admits—and most service providers will confirm—that many homeless youth are not visible enough to provide an accurate count, meaning that youth on or near our city streets could number over a thousand. With only 69 reliable beds and a handful of shelter mats, many young people survive by sleeping on couches and staying with friends before seeking shelters and doorways. Unsurprisingly, a good number of them seek help from the Ministry of Children and Family Development at some point in their lives. 

For many youth wary of the foster system and risking abuse at home, a youth agreement from that Ministry is the ideal transition to adulthood. A youth agreement is a contract between the Ministry and youth aged 15-18 which allows them to live independently, with the Ministry providing some financial or other support. While it may seem like the perfect solution for youth seeking refuge from an abusive home, only 18 percent of BC’s street-involved youth surveyed in 2007 by the McCreary Centre Society had successfully entered into an agreement. That same survey found that 61 percent of street-involved youth had experienced violence at home—something that under the Child, Family and Community Service Act demands the child’s protection (along with emotional abuse, sexual exploitation, neglect and abandonment).

Karl, now 17, spent two years on and off the street to avoid an unsafe home life. He says, “I know several people that have been through the Ministry. All of their cases have been either blown off or they’ve been treated really poorly.” Karl made it part of the way through his application for a youth agreement before his relationship with the Ministry was abruptly cut off, giving him nowhere to turn but the street. “The Ministry told me that they met my parents and they didn’t feel that my claims were true, and so I lived on the streets for a while after that. They were aware that I was living on the streets and told me…because my parents wanted me back they weren’t going to do anything.” 

In such cases, it seems, the word of adult caregivers is routinely taken over that of potentially threatened youth, something that provincial Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says cannot happen when a child is seeking protection. “The Ministry may have to engage with the family, but they need to understand the short-term and the long-term issues and take seriously what young people say.” The conversation, says Turpel-Lafond, should always be between the young person and the Ministry before anyone else. “An upset young person is probably somebody that needs to be listened to very carefully. They may not be able to communicate clearly because there may have been something brewing here for a long time, so we need to look at what’s really going on.”

Too often, according to service providers, the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the youth. Ministry social workers appear to assume that youth cannot be trusted, that their claims are exaggerated, and that parents are inherently and always competent, honest, and loving—even when lying is the best way to avoid the consequences of abuse. 

The Ministry admits that “Should a young person seek out services with the Ministry of Children and Families or Delegated Aboriginal Agency, the first priority is that youth are reunified with family whenever possible and safe.” Further, and directly related to cases like Karl’s, the list of requirements for applicants to receive a youth agreement includes “significant adverse condition…behavioural or mental disorders, or sexual exploitation,” but at no point directly mentions physical or emotional abuse as legitimate reasons for young people to seek help.

Unfortunately, getting hard data on youth who are denied service by the Ministry of Children and Family Development seems impossible. The Ministry starts a file on everyone who begins the process of obtaining support, but does not, according to two Ministry representatives, keep any stats on youth turned away at the door. During my research, several staff members were unable to locate the stats on youth who have been given a case but ultimately denied. It seems harder still to find information on why youth are denied services in these cases. In conversation, Ministry reps have even gone so far as to say that no youth are explicitly denied service, a claim which is directly contradicted by service providers and the youth I have spoken to.

The oversight in collecting data and the issue itself have been largely ignored because the people who understand it—the ones who youth turn to for support when the Ministry fails them—feel unable to speak out. While researching this article I spoke with half a dozen youth service providers; all confirmed the stories I heard from youth, many added stories of their own, and all refused to go on the record for fear of losing access to the Ministry’s purse. 

Until we can ensure that youth are taken seriously and given the protection and support they deserve, any other effort will be rendered futile for the hundreds of young people sleeping rough in Victoria. The McCreary Centre’s survey found that most youth became street-involved between the ages of 11 and 14. When such young persons are turned away from the Ministry once, they are effectively lost to the system, cast away to become entrenched in street life. We cannot know how many of the people who live and die on our streets would have made it out if only the Ministry were on their side. 

Simon Nattrass is a Victoria writer with a special interest in issues related to youth.