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yet another proclamation to end youth homelessness

November 2, 2015

Well, there has been yet another laudable, yet entirely worthless announcement made last week about ending youth homelessness. This time from a team of non-profits in Ottawa.

I wish them well in their enterprise.

I won’t hold my breath, but I still wish them well.

I’m not sure if they really believe their own hyperbole when they say they will end homelessness – or if they thought this might be the best way to draw attention to the fact that there are more than a 1,000 homeless youth in Ottawa. It’s always hard to tell with these non-profit optimists.

After 25 years working with marginalized youth I still can’t always tell the difference between the simply delusional managerial types who have drank the Kool-Aid regarding their own abilities to solve an endemic social and economic problem, the eternal optimists, the Christian martyr types, or the political careerist whose job it is to keep the money coming into the agency.

(The honest types you spot almost right away. They are never seeking any attention for their work. They are too busy trying to do the right thing – usually at 3 in the morning – with some shelter youth who has just spilled the beans about 8 years of sexual abuse.)

But because there are so many non-profit-political types it’s terribly hard not to sound cynical sometimes. St. Mikes Hospital in Toronto made the same announcement last year. Halifax a year or two before that. Edmonton, Vancouver, and Winnipeg have all said they were going to end youth homelessness.

But given the reality of the homeless situation – it’s just absurd to be making such proclamations.

The homeless problem is so fucking big there is no way a non-profit (or 10 non-profits) can solve it on their own.

1. Start with the fact that homeless people, by the very nature of their existence, are poor. Not just “I have no money to go to a movie” poor, but the “I haven’t eaten in three days, where is the local soup kitchen” poor. They live in the world of nickels and dimes, butts picked up off the sidewalk, don’t get caught in an alleyway alone, one meal a day.

In most provinces they can’t go on welfare because they have no address – and even if they do find a shelter and get on shelter-assisted welfare – they still can’t afford an apartment, nor are they allowed to get a roommate to help share the costs should they find one.

I knew a youth in Halifax who found a gracious landlord who offered him a 2-bdrm apartment at the price of one of his lower-end one-bedrooms ($500), so that the youth could get another person for the second bedroom. This would have cut the rent in half, and allowed for some food to be purchased; maybe some bus tickets to get to the job interviews.

That he then still had to get governmental approval for where he could live is a story for another day – but needless to say, that’s the way it is in Halifax – and so he was denied approval because non-parental welfare recipients are not allowed more than a one bedroom apartment, regardless of price.

Yes, that’s right. If you are 19 in Halifax, on welfare, and find a 2 bedroom you can afford, you are not allowed to have it. You are only allowed a one-bedroom – no matter the circumstances.

Think about that for a moment and then tell me if your head exploded!

Youth on welfare in Halifax receive $300 a month. (They can get $535 if they have a diagnosed disability and can afford to pay a doctor to fill out the required forms. Yes, doctors charge homeless youth to fill out their disability papers.) The average Halifax one-bedroom is $600, and the average two-bedroom is $1050.

2. Start with the fact that 90% of the youth who show up at a shelter have some form of mental health issue. Almost all have some form of Post Trauma Stress Disorder (which, by the way, is a bullshit term – as if your inability to deal with the 10 years of physical abuse you received at the hands of your drunken father – is somehow a disorder). PTSD is the ever-present 24/7/365 ghost in the machine for homeless youth.

And how do you define addiction when your mother started giving you pot to smoke when you were 5-years-old, because she couldn’t deal with her own violent life, nor had any energy to deal with her depression.

What do you do with a youth who has fetal alcohol, has the biggest warmest heart in the world, but is 20 points behind the IQ bar, and is prone to ADHD-type poor decisions – like getting into fights with other youth who tease him and take advantage of him. What do you do?

What about the girls who were sold into the sex trade at 12 by their parents?

What about the boys who have mothers who have accused them of being Satan? Or have thrown their sons to the street because they suspect the boy of having impure thoughts?

What about the girl who has been raped so many times by family members she lives in the world of suicide ideation – the only space that takes the pain away?

What about the repeated kicks to the head, the malnutrition, hands to the fire, tennis rackets to the back, shanks in a back alley, rape in the backseat of the cop car – pick your “disorder”.

And even if they do make it to the shelter, they will discover that there are 1-3 year waiting lists for most mental health supports. And if they can’t get in by 18, they are no longer qualified to use the “youth” service. (Forgot about it entirely, if you live in the country – 75% of rural youth have no access to youth services at all.)

Any youth in Halifax who is sexually assaulted at 17 will not be seen by sexual assault counselors, because there is a 1-1.5 year waiting list, and after 18 they don’t qualify. (Unless they are rich, of course. Then they can see a privately-funded counselor any time they like.)

3. Start with the fact that there is no political commitment to solve the youth homeless problem. Oh, political-types will babble on and on about this or that youth-serving initiative, but beyond the eye-catching headlines, most of them think homeless youth are just lazy scam artists who won’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – so why waste real money on them? Why enable them?

Governments all but stopped building affordable housing two decades ago – despite a country awash in corporate profits and some of the richest banks in the world. Budgets in most provinces have been cut in half over the last decade.

At the last youth shelter I worked at, we had 20 beds for a town with about 300 homeless youth (at a minimum – some think it is double that) – and even those 20 measly beds was not adequately funded. We couldn’t even get enough money for proper food! (You try feeding 20 teenagers 3 meals a day on $400 a week!)

4. Start with the fact that the public is mostly indifferent to the blight of the homeless. When I tell people that I am a homeless youth counselor, they like to say “people like me” are saints for working with the homeless (and for poverty wages), but they wouldn’t dream of giving a dime to the cause. And don’t try to put any homeless services in their neighbourhoods – no matter how discrete your service will be. No, best to put your shelter behind some old abandoned warehouse way out in the fringes of the city – because, really, that’s where people like this belong.

5. Most importantly, start with the fact that no one – politician, academic, social worker – wants to really examine the fact that we have constructed a society that produces, and continues to produce – every day – homeless people. That the very construction of our society, how it works, how it is structured, at its fundamental roots, produces homeless youth.

Every day a thousand kids turn 16 in this country. Every day a new group of 16-yr-olds are no longer under the guidance of children’s aid (as forlorn as that guidance is).

In Scandinavian countries new mothers get a weekly visit from a Public Health nurse. Youth are not sent to jail – they are sent to rehabilitation – counselling, real job training, apprenticeships. The recidivism is 1/10th of what it is here when you just send youth to jail. They have twice the mental health supports, better affordable housing supports, real job training.

We don’t examine this fact, because at the individual level, it is too overwhelming to contemplate. We don’t think about how deeply the crime-and-punishment capitalist model is embedded in our culture – despite all the evidence suggesting there are much better ways of doing things.

Ask any shelter worker and they will tell you that youth homelessness starts many years before a child actually ends up on the street. They will tell you that they know that their work – under the current model – is mostly just sticking their fingers in the holes in the dike. They will tell you that for many of these kids, the problems are inter-generational.

They will tell you that they only have 20 beds when 300 come to the door asking for help.

Start with that fact….

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