In a small clearing of tree roots and hard-packed earth next to Langford Lake, Kris Romyn shows us his old home.
Circled by brush and big Douglas firs, its a good spot to stay hidden from the trail, and protected from the wind. Seven years ago as an 18-year-old, he lived here in a tent, as one of the largely out-of-sight homeless youth on the West Shore.
“I like to say I’ve had lakefront property,” Romyn jokes. “I had a tent, that isn’t common. A tent is a luxury condo when you are homeless.”
Now 25, the Langford native is part of the West Shore Youth Housing Task Force, a grassroots group aiming to establish a shelter to get kids off the street.
Romyn had lost his job and then his apartment, and spent about a year alternating camping at Langford Lake and in the forest in Royal Roads University.
“Eventually people find you and report you, so you have to move on,” he says. “I’ve had my blanket and clothes and tent thrown in the lake.”
Typically he hung around Westshore Town Centre and depended on buddies to provide him food. At points he slept in underground parking lots or couch surfed with friends.
Eventually, the Pathway Project youth employment program in Langford helped set his life in order.
Youth struggling with homelessness and unstable housing on the West Shore are largely invisible, but the issue of establishing a permanent shelter is gaining traction. Romyn reckons he knows a dozen youth struggling to find regular shelter now, some who regularly sleep in underground parking lots in Langford. Experts estimate anywhere from 40 to 80 West Shore youth are without stable shelter at any given time.
“I know about a dozen are on the street, hanging around,” Romyn says. “We’ve really got to get something going so kids are safe, we’ve got to get something going quick.”
The youth housing task force, a group of volunteers and public service agencies, has completed two studies that provide the basis for seeking grants to establish a youth shelter somewhere in Langford or Colwood.
The task force will likely seek to create a youth shelter or drop-in centre near Westshore Town Centre and Belmont secondary, based on feedback from youth focus groups.
“It needs to be close to the bus exchange and the mall, and close to Belmont to encourage kids to go to school,” says Ashley Frerichs, a 20-year-old on the task force who experienced couch surfing as a teen.
Bill McElroy, a long-time social worker who chairs the task force, sees two tasks ahead — creating a temporary, ad-hoc shelter in place now, and working toward establishing a permanent drop in shelter with eight to 10 beds.
He envisions a longer term solution as a 24-7 drop-in shelter with staff equipped to connect troubled youth with social services or their parents, or to offer something as simple as a shower and hot meal.
“We need to start small, simply and cheaply and pick it up as demand increases,” he said.
McElroy is applying for federal funding through he Capital Region Housing Corporation that could provide a down payment for a house in Langford or Colwood. He’s also in early talks with a foundation to provide operating funds for a youth shelter.
Standing in the rough patch of earth where Romyn used to camp, McElroy said there is no reason why West Shore youth need to live rough, even for one night. He has West Shore business owners and developers offering makeshift shelter space.
“We don’t need $10 million, we need a place that can accommodate four to six youth on an interim basis. It would be a start and better than what we have now,” McElroy said.
“We need to start something in the next month to get kids in out of the rain and out of the camps, to get a roof over their head and food in their bellies.”
For more information on the West Shore youth shelter project, email Bill McElroy at email@example.com. To donate toward the project, contact the Pacific Centre Family Services Association at 250-478-8357.