Mark Muldoon received 117 referrals to house youth in 2015.
The executive director of Threshold Housing Society, a non-profit organization offering transitional housing for youth, says they only have 30 rooms in total. That means he has the unfortunate task of saying “no” more often than he says “yes.”
The calls from the Ministry of Child and Family Development, high school councillors, First Nations child and family services, Pacific Centre Family Services Association, foster parents and even self referrals just can’t be fulfilled.
“We draw from as far north as Nanaimo and Duncan. We even have youth from Port Alberni, Port Hardy, Cobble Hill; and they all come here,” Muldoon says. “They’re all drawn here because perhaps they have to finish school, perhaps employment opportunities are better here, (maybe) mental health services are a bit better.”
One way or another, he says, the youth find their way to Greater Victoria. Contrary to what some may believe, he adds, the vast majority are great kids and face different challenges that mean they can’t be lumped in with adults.
“Unless this society really separates out adult homelessness and youth homelessness, they are never going to get it right. With youth homelessness, the kids are not there by choice, they have been abandoned, they are escaping abuse, they are aging out of foster care or there’s family conflict,” he says. “But the prejudice out there is huge. They think these kids are anti-authoritarian … that these youth are just somehow bucking the system and they just want to party. That’s not our experience.”
West Shore-raised Camellia Lawson remembers what it felt like at 16 to not know where she was going to sleep the next night. She said it was one of the most challenging times of her life. After cutting herself to the point where she didn’t know if she’d be able to stop, she handed over her pocket knife to her adoptive parents.
Instead of packing her books for school the next day, she packed her bags, because she knew she likely wouldn’t be back home anytime soon.
“I was in the hospital for a little while and the discharge papers came through from the psychiatrist, and it was signed off for me to leave, (but) my adopted parents decided it wouldn’t be best … So they kind of handed over their rights while I was in the hospital,” she says. “It was a weekend, so no one knew what to do. (An) on-call social worker at the hospital was trying to figure out what to do.”
Still in high school, Lawson was fresh off a stint in a mental hospital to help her deal with challenges and had nowhere to go. It was one of the worst days of her life, she says.
“(Youth) don’t know how to reach out for services. Sometimes the services are overfull and (people) slip through the cracks. It’s definitely an issue.”
Shyann Hoppe is a nursing student at the University of Victoria studying youth homelessness and advocates options for youth on the West Shore. She says the problem spreads far further than just the physical need for shelter.
“Anxiety, and other types of psychological disease processes, are all affected by outward factors that you’re predisposed to if you are homeless,” she says. “At the end of your day you’re exhausted. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, if you have worked a full shift, if you are running errands all day; how good it feels at the end of the day to go to a house, a place you can call a home … It doesn’t matter where you live, having that place to go really solidifies your holistic well being.”
Hoppe, part of a cohort studying the West Shore specifically says even a couple of weeks of not having a place to go creates anxiety, a general feeling of malaise, and affects mental and physical health and the motivation to succeed.
“I think it’s very important to have that support and motivation in life when you are a youth,” she says. “There aren’t any resources that are easily accessible for the youth in the West Shore right now, and that is one of the reasons we focused on the West Shore.”
Stories in this series: