What do you do when you find yourself waking up in a park?
Graham Kelly, who works at a semi-independent transitional home for youth, has seen youth facing overwhelming challenges like this first-hand. He’s seen high school students without an alarm clock, listening for the sound of traffic and morning joggers to wake them up for school.
“Imagine you’re a 16- or 17-year-old kid and you’re trying to go to high school and you’re trying to get a job. You can’t stay at home because one of your parents is addicted … for whatever reason it is not a livable situation,” he says. “What do you do then? Where do you go?”
Kelly is a live-in adult mentor at Mitchell House, a subsidized housing facility for young men offered through Threshold Housing Society. The home, which does not tolerate drugs or alcohol, provides furnished rooms, shared common spaces, a living room, dining room and kitchens. The equivalent space for young women, Holly House, is also downtown nearby other youth housing initiatives.
“When I started, it was a capacity of eight and now it’s a capacity of 29, so almost four times bigger. That is a response to the need,” he says.
Despite what some might believe, these houses are welcomed by their neighbours, Kelly says. They’ve never had one police call to a home, not one community complaint. In fact, before Mitchell House became transitional housing for youth, Kelly went door-to-door to the neighbours to check in on how they felt about being in proximity to such a facility. The community welcomed and supported them, he says. One woman even brings in baked goods once a week to share with the youth living there.
The youth buy in because the programs give them just enough space, balanced with structure and the knowledge that there is always an adult around. The successes are real for these individuals aged 16 to 24, Kelly says. One youth who recently graduated out of the program is now in Japan, while another transitioned into carpentry and does “amazing work.”
“There’s much excitement for a young man that got hired on full time with B.C. Ferries, a unionized job,” he says. “I mean, that is a career for life, every single day he gives us gratitude saying ‘I couldn’t live with my mom, I wasn’t able to do it. If I didn’t have this place to come to, I don’t know if I would have made it, I don’t know what I would have done.’ To see these guys succeed in this way is so gratifying.”
Having the house makes a difference in Victoria, where many of the youth seem to end up, but Westshore Sunrise Rotarian Maureen Hobbs, a former public health nurse at Belmont secondary and a teacher of community health at the University of Victoria, says we now need that support here.
Hobbs, along with her nursing students, has been exploring and studying the issue and found approximately 20 West Shore youth need some sort of housing. According to a McCreary Centre Report in 2015, youth are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.
“Talking about youth who don’t have a home to go to is not a popular topic. Most prefer not to talk about it, but really we need to,” Hobbs says. “If we take a more upstream, proactive approach now, providing a roof over their head with a secure environment, we won’t lose them. We can keep kids in school with access to their friends and family, keep them in our community.”
She and her team followed up their September 2015 study by consulting youth at Royal Bay secondary to advocate for ending homelessness last November. In January and February, Hobbs helped facilitate community meetings and a workshop with housing advocates, nurses, teachers and politicians, to further explore the need for some kind of transitional housing.
In March, the steering committee distributed information to teachers in Sooke School District about recognizing signs in youth who may be at risk for homelessness, with a focus on educating the public. All of this happened without money to make a housing initiative happen, but Hobbs hopes for a breakthrough.
“Miracles like this really do happen,” she says. “A donation of land and/or a house close to a secondary school would be wonderful. Who knows if you don’t ask?”
Recent success stories say these initiatives make a difference, and Camillia Lawson, a former West Shore resident living at Holly House downtown, is proof of that. Lawson now plays hockey, holds down two jobs and even has a limited relationship with her biological father and two sisters, whom she knew mostly through photographs taken before their family was split up.
She pays $350 a month at Holly House and is responsible for cooking her own food and doing a portion of household chores. Through living at the house and the mentorship provided there, she’s learned new skills, from cooking and understanding taxes to understanding the Medical Services Plan. For some youth, even personal hygiene is new.
Lawson’s new life is growing on her.
“It was definitely an adjustment, because I’m more used to being by myself … I would go days without talking to anyone. Now there is someone I can reach out to; it wakes me up. It actually gets me energized and talking and thinking and less mopey,” she says.
“Without this program there would be a lot more kids out on the streets sadly … The West Shore, they have good services out there, but housing is definitely not one of them.”
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