At the age of five, Camellia Lawson was taken from her home.
By the time she was 16, the West Shore youth had been in and out of foster homes, adopted, given up by her adopted family, taken in by school friends and even checked into a mental hospital. Some days Lawson didn’t know where she’d be the next day, but through it all, she kept her living situation hidden.
“I would always say that I was okay, that I was fine, I always had a smile on my face … Everything was behind the walls,” says Lawson, now 21. “(To) a lot of people I just dropped off the face of the earth for a week and came back and had moved. No one knew anything else other than that.”
Her story isn’t uncommon in Greater Victoria. Dozens of youth battle life challenges including homelessness every day and the problem, especially on the West Shore, isn’t getting better. Because of the growth of the population, it’s getting worse.
“Do we see (youth) sleeping in the doorways like downtown? No, but it’s more like couch surfing, private people taking their kid’s friend in,” says West Shore youth advisor Randy Waldie. “It’s invisible homelessness that way.”
Waldie has heard anecdotally about an RCMP officer giving his sleeping bag to a homeless youth in the woods, and of youth residing next to the Galloping Goose Trail because there is nowhere to go here. The West Shore, still among the fastest growing communities in Canada, features two new high schools, both of which are already over capacity and looking at bringing in portables to accommodate incoming youth. All this growth, but the services to accommodate those who may be at risk of homelessness haven’t caught up.
“All the services are in Victoria … I had a client a couple weeks ago, I kept saying you have to go downtown. Our Place (a downtown facility offering nourishment and services for the vulnerable) is a fantastic resource,” Waldie says. “I would be really interested (to know) how many people at Our Place started out in the West Shore. I think we offload our social problems … yet our food bank out here is used enthusiastically.”
He believes an emergency shelter made available for youth, one responsive enough to offer a bed and a bowl of soup in the mornings would be a great facility in the West Shore. However, he just doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.
Youth advocate Bill McElroy says on any given night, there are approximately 20 West Shore youth with nowhere to stay. They filter through couches or maybe sleep in a vehicle. They spend nights hanging around at the 7-11, around Langford Lake or on the grounds at Royal Roads University and find dry places under apartments in closed parkades. Those that don’t have money have few choices he says, but even if they could afford rent, significant barriers exist.
“I think the two main challenges there is, if there are houses out there, the youth can’t afford it and a lot of landlords don’t want to rent to youth anyway because they (believe youth) will beat the place up,” McElroy says. “They can’t sign a legal contract… and the vacancy rates are so low it’s really getting expensive.”
The factors leading to youth homelessness, he said, can be quite different than in the adult homeless population. Common situations include problems at home with parents on drugs, parents moving but the kids deciding to stay, girlfriends or boyfriends kicking them out, disagreements with step-parents and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Of those youth on the West Shore who need housing, six are in “dire” need, he says.
“By dire need I mean there is nowhere for them to go. They wander around, hang around… we don’t want them going downtown looking for shelter,” he said.
“If they get into trouble and leave home, it’s usually late at night and they don’t have bus fare or, if the last bus is gone, we don’t want a situation where they go downtown. (If) they don’t have a bed available there, then they are really stuck. They don’t know anyone and have nowhere to go.”
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