I have been working with homeless youth for 29 years and one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned came only 5 years ago. It was taught to me by a 19 year old woman who had been homeless; who at age 16 had lived on the streets for 2 weeks in London, Ontario. The young woman had agreed to host Ontario’s Minister for Child and Youth Services who had asked our organization to arrange informal meetings with youth experiencing poverty. The ministry was in the midst of developing a poverty reduction strategy targeting children and youth and she wanted to learn from them.
This lesson took place in the doorway of a tiny bachelor’s apartment which was, at the time, a new home for the young woman and one of 28 affordable housing units operated by our agency. The young woman described the challenging circumstances that led to her becoming homeless. The details were painful, but her story was one of lessons learned, hope for the future and … luck. Yes, this young woman described herself as lucky – to have lived on the street for only 2 weeks; to have found support; and to now have a safe home. It was a lesson that struck both the Minister and me for the strength and resilience it reflected. It was a lesson that we have both reflected on several times since that meeting.
I see that resilience and strength within many young people experiencing homelessness. While it is certain that there are many challenges faced by these individuals and that they often have complex service needs; we must resist the temptation to focus only on the deficits and the needs of the population. We must also consider each person’s strengths and help them build on them. We must see their potential; not define them by their current situation.
How has the lesson been applied? For our organization, it has centred on youth engagement. One example is that for the past 4 years, youth who have experienced homelessness have been keynote speakers at Breakfast for YOUth; drawing up to 700 community leaders annually in London, Ontario for Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). Youth speakers learn new skills and build their portfolio and our community experiences the strength of these young people. It is a truly moving experience which leaves a lasting legacy in our community each year.
According to reports cited by Raising the Roof, there are approximately 65,000 homeless youth in Canada. Their challenges are complex. We know that approximately 70% of youth experiencing homelessness have experienced some form of abuse. We also know that many face other challenges; with substance abuse, mental health and other health issues. As service providers and caring members of our communities, we have to see more than the challenges. Our challenge is to focus on the strengths and resilience of each young person experiencing homelessness to help them discover their hopes … create their dreams … pursue their passions so that each of them can experience the “luck” that a strong young woman taught me about 5 years ago.
– Steve Cordes, Executive Director, Youth Opportunities Unlimited
Join Steve at the Youth Homelessness Community Forum tonight at 7pm at Belmont Sr Secondary and learn more about youth homelessness in Greater Victoria.