The Most Invisible Kids in BC
The Most Invisible Kids in BC
“You have to be a strong person to survive life out here because if you’re not a strong person this place would just eat you up. People would eat you up.” – Downtown Eastside resident (in the documentary Down Here.)
On the evening of March 11, 2014, a team of nearly 1000 people rallied together in the streets and shelters of Metro Vancouver. Their mission was to count the number of homeless people. It happens every year, this scouring of “streets, alleys, parks, bottle depots, and places where services and programs were available.” By the end of the 24-hour period, volunteers had counted 2,777 people amongst the streets and shelters – and that’s acknowledged to be an underestimate.
Significantly (and sadly), one out of five people counted was a child or youth (i.e. under 25).
While the total head count has varied little since 2008, “The number of homeless children and youth who have been identified in Homeless Counts has increased over the years,” said the subsequent report.
This increase is profoundly frustrating for people like Dr. Stephen Gaetz. He’s been fighting homelessness since the 1990s, doing street outreach, publishing papers and books on youth homelessness, and launching initiatives like the Homeless Hub – a digital library and resource centre. Gaetz was in Vancouver earlier this month for the National Conference on Ending Homelessness.
“The longer I’m involved in this the more I just find it completely unacceptable that we let any young person be mired in homelessness for any more than a week,” he said.
“The harm done over the course of a lifetime by letting people languish and expecting them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is profoundly huge.”
Gaetz is working with people across Canada to launch a coalition to end youth homelessness. He said they’re on track to launch sometime this winter.
“We have to shift the conversation from building emergency services and support... [and] focus way more on prevention and fixing the things that drive youth homelessness,” he told me over the phone.
“The economy has changed. People stay in school longer. Full-time, well-paying jobs have disappeared in most places in the country.”
I asked him whether the picture of youth homelessness in BC looks different than youth homelessness elsewhere in Canada.
“It is and it isn’t,” he said.
“There are some underlying factors that are present everywhere. Homophobia is no better or worse in BC than anywhere else. And the lack of affordable housing most certainly in Vancouver is a huge barrier that would probably be worse than a lot of communities, but that would be also the case in places like Calgary and Toronto. That’s where I think a lot of pan-Canadian work is important. We need to start sharing conversations.”
Gaetz advocates for a housing-first strategy. Get people off the street first and foremost, he argues.
“We know from research that housing first is an effective response. More than that, it’s a rights-based response. No young person should have to prove that they’re ready for or deserving of housing.”
If your response to this is “no kidding”, well, this approach is not without its critics. The Georgia Straight recently published a piece by Stanley Q. Woodvine. The Straight identified Woodvine as “a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer.”
“I believe that change needs to happen first at the street level and to the drug culture associated with homelessness or else the homeless drug addicts put in new social housing will simply bring the dangers of the street home with them,” Woodvine wrote.
Addiction poses a significant barrier to ending youth homelessness. I spoke to Michelle Clausius about this. She’s the associate director of development and communications at Covenant House, a youth-only shelter and service provider in Vancouver. Last year they serviced almost 1400 youth.
“One of our principles at Covenant House is sanctuary," she said.
"We can’t have young people who are actively using drugs come into our programs. We need to be respectful of the young people who are in recovery.”
The challenge is about 50 per cent of the people they work with are dealing with addiction. So how does Covenant House deal with that?
“If they’re willing to address their addiction then we get them into a detox program,” she said.
Once youth are off drugs, they can apply to join Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program, a long-term program where they can get guidance, counseling and a furnished apartment. Clausius told me that some young people have been so neglected that they need help building basic skills like “budgeting, how to grocery shop, how to cook a meal, [and] how to keep an apartment clean.”
Both Clausius and Gaetz argue that we need to do more for youth who are over 19. (That’s the age when people age out of the foster care system.)
“Most of the foster kids that come through the system have had interrupted educations. They have not finished high school. They have not had a stable family or a stable upbringing. They’re also dealing with the trauma of whatever it was that caused them to be taken into care in the first place.”
And yet, she said:
“When a young person ages out of foster care, they’re given a hundred dollars and, you know, good luck.”
Clausius started working for Covenant House back in 1998, right after it launched. While the number of homeless youth may remain high, she’s noticed at least one significant change over the past 16 years.
“When I first started… there was very little awareness of youth homelessness. The most popular perception of street youth was that they were just a bunch of lazy kids who didn’t like their curfews.”
Perhaps people have become more empathetic as it’s become less of a stretch to imagine themselves without a roof – and all the things that go along with it.
“There’s more pressure now then there ever was with both parents having to work and the cost of living. It can create quite a perfect storm,” Clausius said.
As the cost of living continues to rise, ending homelessness is, no doubt, a tall order. But ending youth homelessness is even taller, as the Homeless Count report points out.
“Homeless youth are not the same as homeless adults – they are much less visible. Homelessness for youth can take many forms: living in unsafe situations, couch surfing – staying temporarily with friends, as well as being out on the streets. It was also observed that many young people don’t consider themselves homeless or don’t want to admit they are homeless.”
On December 9, we’re premiering an Oscar-winning documentary about a young homeless girl who refused to be made invisible. Using a paintbrush, 15-year-old Inocente Izucar gives herself an outlet and the rest of us an unforgettable glimpse at what it’s like to be young and homeless.
You can watch the Canadian premiere of Inocente on Storyville – December 9 at 9pm. Alternatively, you could stream it on our website.