On Monday an organization that supports at-risk youth issued a report on youth homelessness in St. John’s and called for intergovernmental cooperation to develop an official strategy to address the growing problem in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Towards a Solution, the report from St. John’s-based Choices for Youth, says that according to shelter statistics youth between the ages of 16-24 make up 30 per cent of the capital city’s homeless population. That’s 231 young people in St. John’s who are staying in shelters. The number jumps to 40 per cent of all homeless people in St. John’s if children and youth under the age of 16 are included in that count.
The actual number of homeless youth is likely higher, the report cautions, as the tallies don’t reflect youth who are turned away from shelters at full occupancy, or those sleeping on the street or couch-surfing. “They also do not include the number of youth who are living in unsafe, unstable living circumstances (e.g. being sexually exploited) in order to have a roof over their head.”
Homeless youth are those “between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers and importantly, lack many of the social supports deemed necessary for the transition from childhood to adulthood. In such circumstances, they do not have a stable or consistent residence or source of income, nor do they necessarily have adequate access to the support networks necessary to foster a safe and nurturing transition into the responsibilities of adulthood.”
The report further details various reasons and life circumstances leading to youth homelessness, such as family breakdown, childhood trauma, mental illness, addiction, poverty, or extreme violence, to name a few.
“We need…systems that are reflective of the lives of young people”
Jessica Wall lost her mother when she was four and was taken from her father at 11 and put into foster care, where she lived with numerous families, she said, before being forced to navigate different age-based systems on her own when she turned 16, 18, and then 21.
At a panel discussion Monday that coincided with the report’s release, Wall and others with lived experience joined Choices for Youth (CFY) Executive Director Sheldon Pollett in explaining the complexities of youth homelessness and the inadequacies in government systems that attempt to address the problem.
“Young people don’t show up at the door of Choices for Youth with single issues around what’s affecting their lives,” Pollett explained.
“The statistics are around mental health and addictions, homelessness, lack of educational opportunities, lack of employment opportunities — what we’re finding out is youth are coming to us with a bundle of these issues and barriers, but yet so much of the services we provide are geared around these issues as single pieces of work that young people are continuously redirected to.
“We need to have systems that are reflective of the lives of young people,” he continued, “whether that’s a one-stop-shop, or no matter where you pop up in that system that there’s a consistent supportive response around a range of issues.”
Sarah Browne, director of CFY’s Youth Leadership Council, said programs that try to address youth homelessness need to shift their efforts and energies from emergency response to prevention.
“How do we work with this young person’s family and nip it in the bud before it gets to that point? Because homelessness — it’s not as though just one day it happens; a lot of times there’s things that build up to it. There’s family breakdowns, there’s traumas,” she said.
In addition to prevention, Browne also urged reform in housing and support.
“There’s complex needs: drug addictions, mental health, barriers to school, [and] people think, ‘These youth just can’t be housed — they’re too complex,’ when in reality Choices For Youth houses these youth. It’s not that they can’t be housed, it’s that they need a safe and stable environment.”
During the discussion, Kim Best, a nurse for Blue Sky, a private company that provides care for at-risk youth in the province, asked for advice on how to deal with young people living with addiction who don’t want help.
“They don’t want to be there. They’re youngsters [and] they would much rather be doing drugs in the street, and the thing is that they’ve got nothing to lose, they’ve got no consequences, and I’m just finding I’m just banging my head against the wall trying to get these kids help when nobody wants to take them. … You’re not going to get kids who want to sign on the dotted line — they don’t want to be there. And that’s where we’re really, really struggling.”
In response Browne highlighted one of the problems outlined in the report — that youth homelessness can’t be addressed by applying adult responses.
“With addictions you have to be in a place where you want to get better and want to change, and it’s [as] hard as it is because you see their potential and want to push them along and make these decisions, like ‘Get better’ — you can’t do that,” Browne said.
“My perspective would be [to] support them wherever they can be supported, where they want to be supported. They don’t want help with their addictions, but maybe they want to learn how to cook, they want to learn to try new things, they want to try painting or something.
“If you put all these [supports] in place — you explore their interests, explore their coping skills, all these different life skills — they will build the confidence and get to a place where, hey, I actually want to get clean, I believe I have potential and I can do something with my life,” she said to applause from the 50 or so people in attendance.
“What we have to do is respond to [youth] based on their needs, not based on which system they’re attached to or who’s paying the bill,” said Pollett. “I think what you have is a scenario where youth are transitioning from a child system to the youth systems to the adult systems at a very critical time in their development.
“When you stop thinking about it from a systemic point of view and [start] thinking about it from a youth point of view, we’re already halfway there,” he continued.
“When young people are supported and supported properly based on their needs, they will astound you with what they’re capable of.”
Politicians respond, discuss possible steps
Clyde Jackman, cabinet minister responsible for the Newfoundland Housing Corporation, attended the event and after the panel discussion told The Independent “the reality is it could be one of my grandchildren sitting in that seat,” referring to the panelists who shared their experiences. “Circumstances happen in people’s lives and you never know where life is going to take you.
“We are a province, we have a responsibility to these youth, and we’ve got to do whatever is required — all of us,” he continued. “Government is part of that — we’ve got to make better choices for youth. It’s simple as that.”
NDP member for St. John’s Centre Gerry Rogers attended the event too. Her party’s critic for Child, Youth & Family Services and for NL Housing, Rogers said the urgency of the youth homelessness problem, and of homelessness more broadly in Newfoundland and Labrador, warrants the establishment of an all-party committee on housing so that government and stakeholders can begin working with organizations like CFY closely and effectively to develop a strategy to address the problem.
“We know that housing is affecting young people, people with mental health and addictions issues…it’s affecting young working families who have to pay for childcare…it’s affecting seniors,” she said. “So I think what would be [useful] is to have an all-party committee on housing, because it’s at a crisis point.
“The mayors across the province the year before last all said that housing was a major issue — they used the word ‘crisis’. And government I think is finally waking up to the fact that housing is so serious.”
Asked if he thinks youth homelessness is a problem that warrants an all-party committee, Jackman said, “I certainly think so…but the larger context here is the community has got to be a part of this as well.”
Towards a Solution calls for a “housing first” approach to dealing with the youth homelessness problem, where youth are adequately supported in obtaining housing that is conducive to their well-being, coupled with all the adequate supports and access to programs. The housing first philosophy was outlined in last year’s government-commissioned OrgCode Report: A Road Map For Ending Homelessness in Newfoundland and Labrador, and “includes an approach and programming that focuses on helping people experiencing homelessness to have access to housing before providing support for other life issues that contributed to their homelessness.”
Jackman said “the one thing [the PCs] have committed to is adopting the housing-first model through the OrgCode Report, and this has got to be a part of that overall process.
“Whatever my part is, I’m more than willing to do it,” he said.
Liberal MHA for St. John’s South Tom Osborne attended the report launch and discussion too and is advocating for the PC government to follow through on its commitment to adopt the private member’s resolution he put forward in December 2013, which called for a review of the rental allowance provided through the province’s income support program.
“The rental allowance for those on income support in today’s society is not enough to pay the rent, for many people,” he said. “And if you can’t afford rent…then you become homeless. If you don’t have a fixed address, you don’t qualify for income support.”
Osborne said if the Liberals form government they will ensure that policy is implemented and people receiving income support will be given enough to pay rent.
He also said a Liberal government would ensure “there was a smooth transition for somebody who comes out of [the foster care system] at 16 and into another system between 16 and 18, and then another system again between 18 and 21. We would make the supports available so that the transition is smoother.”
Meanwhile, Rogers is calling on the premier—in addition to committing to working with opposition parties and groups to develop a concrete plan to end youth homelessness—to also “commit to a freeze on the sale of all public land and buildings, including vacant schools, hospitals, NL Housing assets, until government comes up with a Housing Strategy based on consultation with municipalities and NGOs,” according to a statement posted on the NL NDP website Friday afternoon.
Jackman, Rogers and Osborne all said they support the idea put forth by a few panelists that a “one-stop-shop” housing facility be built where homeless youth could live comfortably and avail of all the supports necessary to get on their feet, out of poverty and transition to a more dignified life.
“I bet if we dig down to it, the dollars are probably there,” Jackman said, responding to the idea.
Osborne said the economic case for investing in youth homelessness prevention is a no-brainer.
Page 44 of the OrgCode Report “states that the costs to simply shelter a homeless individual in the St. John’s area for one year is about $52,000, so obviously focusing on prevention and successful interventions to mitigate the impacts of homelessness on people would cost a fraction of that amount,” he said. “We know the numbers for successful intervention are somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 a year.”
Toward a collaborative approach
All specific past and current commitments from politicians aside, Pollett and the other youth homelessness advocates are asking all levels of government to look at Towards a Solution and give serious consideration to the collaborative development of a strategy and a comprehensive plan that outlines actionable items.
Other cities and provinces already have progressive plans in the works, Pollet said, “so…that suggests this is not at all about, ‘Is this possible?’ Clearly it is possible. If other communities and governments across this country can make it happen, well then I’m pretty sure here in Newfoundland and Labrador we can do the same thing.
“We understand that we can and must do better, and it starts with coming together…to create a plan.” — Sheldon Pollett
In an emotional plea, Pollett told the audience Monday, “The choice for us is this: do we have the courage and commitment to continue to play a role as a leader in this country when it comes to supporting vulnerable young people? If we do that, we can change the lives of many, many young people this day and every day going forward to the great benefit of all those young people in our province that we’re most concerned about. The opportunity is there for us to take.
“Or — and this is the critical ‘or’ — do we decide that we can’t do any better, that we accept so many young people falling through the cracks is just the way it has to be? All to the detriment of so many young people and everyone around them — and that’s all of us. And to make that choice knowing full well that others in this country have decided that they can do that. So that’s the choice before us.
“I’ve met with various representatives of all political parties…and anyone who cares about this issue…and I’m asking for a commitment,” he continued. “We understand that we can and must do better, and it starts with coming together — youth, community, departments of all levels of government — to create a plan.”
Speaking to The Independent following the event, Pollett said that by June 2016 he would like to see a provincial plan in place that “outlines all the investments, all the processes, all the things that we need to do differently to serve vulnerable young people in a much better way.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We have support from other parts of the country. We have the Alberta plan, for example, which is the first of its kind — a 10-year plan to end youth homelessness in that province,” he continued. “So not only do we have that as a template document, but the process by which they achieved it, which is full collaboration between community and government to say, we need to figure this piece out. So we’re not starting from scratch.”