One of the things I am hearing quite often these days is how terrible the weather is. I agree that it is certainly out of the norm and I am definitely not a fan. Then I think about the youth we support and those who do not have a safe and warm place to stay. For our residents, there is shelter and warmth. But for too many youth, what most of us consider to be terrible weather is life-threatening.
When I used to lead canoe trips and camping trips our goal was to keep our trippers warm, dry, and well fed. Three basic essentials that all of us need. When no formal shelter was available these essentials were that much more important. In a city like Toronto, we tend to believe there is always shelter and a place to get out of the rain and out of the cold. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case. Three or four days of unrelenting cold and rain with slush covered streets and sidewalks make it even harder to keep warm let alone dry.
I am asking each of you to take notice when you get cold, or wet, or both. Noticing the feeling of warmth and security when you are safely in your homes out of the cold. Imagine if you could give someone that feeling? By supporting our work at YWS and by being an advocate for ending youth homelessness you have a chance to do just that.
Female and Homeless
We recently recognized International Women’s Day and celebrated the achievements of women around the world and we also acknowledged the long road ahead in the journey for equality for women. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that one third of all women will be victim to physical violence including sexual violence in their lifetime. In the homeless community women face far more danger and the risks are that much higher. While men outnumber women almost two to one in the homeless population, women are at far greater risk of violence, sexual assault, and sexual exploitation.
Homeless female youth are particularly vulnerable to violence. What is truly frightening is that it is young women who are at even higher risk for sexual violence and sexual exploitation. Research has shown that over 90% of the sex trafficking victims are female and that 42% of them were victims of trafficking before the age of 18. One Toronto shelter found that over 30% of their female residents were involved in the sex trade. It is clear that the vulnerability of young females is at frightening levels.
In the ground breaking 2016 National Youth Homeless Survey participants who identified as female accounted for 36.4% of the national homeless youth population. One of the factors that must be taken into consideration is that many young girls are exploited for what is known as survival sex. This is the practice of exchanging sexual acts for shelter and food. At some point we need to say that enough is enough. YWS is part of the effort to keep young women safe but it will take a far greater commitment and far wider efforts to make lasting change. Each of us can be that voice and keep these issues at the force of political and social debate. The journey for equality has a long road ahead but it is a journey that cannot be taken alone. Join us and other groups supporting the rights of women along this road.
It is once again time for the Olympic Games. Most of us will turn our attention to the achievements of our athletes and applaud not only for their performance, but also their dedication and effort put forth to make those performances possible. These are our national champions.
I am a strong believer in acknowledging the exemplary achievements of those who have dedicated their lives in pursuit of excellence. In reflection, I have realized that it is in not simply the achievement I applaud, but rather the dedication and single minded pursuit of excellence I applaud. I am humbled by their effort. The same can be said for the youth we support each day. I am humbled by their resilience and strength in the face of adversity and their ability to push forward despite the odds that are stacked against them.
The opponent in the Olympic Games may be the athletes from other countries, the weather conditions, injuries, illness, or even the athlete themselves. For the youth we support the opponent may be mental health issues, emotional injury, cultural stigma, racism, or poverty. What both groups share is the ability and desire to overcome these opponents each day. Our youth are the champions of life. It is their triumphs that should remind ourselves to cheer and to celebrate. The ability to get up each day and push forward despite the challenges and to do so with a smile and hopefulness is truly the triumph of the human spirit. It is the intersection of the Olympic spirit and the human spirit that I choose to celebrate and I invite you to do the same.
Change one life, one gesture at a time
We are all familiar with the concept of pay it forward. Performing a kind gesture for someone and then the hope is that the gesture is paid forward or reciprocated in some way. In a cynical world the question always arises about how much impact a single kind gesture can achieve. My response is that is can change a life. But you just don’t know which gesture it will be that makes a dramatic impact, so do it all of the time.
Being kind is one of the only things that doesn’t necessarily cost you anything, and almost never causes any personal inconvenience. In fact, the payback is exponentially tilted in the favour of the doer. It feels good to do good. If you’ve ever done something out of the blue and without being asked, that made someone smile, you know the feeling I am talking about.
This year marks our eighth year of Tokens4Change taking place on February 2nd. The theme of this year’s big day is Change one life, one gesture at a time. It is that simple. One gesture of kindness, one gesture of generosity, one gesture of caring. That is the power of your actions.
I ask each of you to offer one gesture of kindness and please do not feel as though it is only for February 2nd. Offer to buy a coffee for the person behind you line, help someone struggling with heavy bags, pay someone’s transit fare. We can change 30 lives in 30 days. Can you imagine the outcome? If every person in Toronto performs one act of kindness a day, at the end of the month there will have been over 844,000,000 gestures of kindness taking place. That is a staggering number. All it takes is one gesture.
Be kind, and on February 2nd as you pass through the TTC stations, you will see me and other T4C’ers canvassing and raising awareness on youth homelessness. You can change a life, one donation at a time. Your generosity will be met with heartfelt thanks and smiles to hopefully brighten your day as you have done that for us.
Hope and Renewal
December is upon us; holidays, family events, gifts, shopping, parties. So many things we look forward to and so many things we are thankful for. We also eagerly await the coming New Year. Each year there are multiple shows on TV that look back on the year that was. We see recaps of events and major news stories. The other theme that seems to permeate the end of the year is opportunity and a chance to start anew; a new year with new possibilities. We gain a perspective on what has been and this helps to shape what can be. We are filled with hope.
At YWS we help to support those we serve to gain a perspective on their past and by doing so perhaps we can help them to see how truly strong and amazing they really are. They can see how resilient they are and how many possibilities lay ahead for them. In essence we are purveyors of hope and kindness. We do not charge a penny for these priceless treasures, but instead we give them away freely and happily. I encourage you to do the same for those you care about, for those you don’t even know yet, and for yourself.
During this season of joy, togetherness, and renewal I wish for all of you the gift of hope and possibility. Hope that the next day will be better than today and the New Year brings endless possibilities. Please remember to give these gifts to others and deliver them wrapped in kindness.
When no one is expecting them home…we are.
As you read this I want you to do an exercise first. Sit quietly, without any distractions. Now think of a time where you were terribly embarrassed. Remember all of the people around you and their reactions. Did you feel something as you thought about it? Were you quick to end the thought? Did the feeling pass or did it linger as the memory did? Chances are you sorted through millions of experiences and memories before you probably landed on this particular one. It took seconds to sort through them all.
Now think about the time you had milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you were 8. Tougher; isn’t it? Try remembering the time you broke a bone or had a terrible fall. Chances are you bypass the actual feeling of the pain, but you can still remember it. More importantly, I bet you can also remember the person who gave you comfort following that hurt as it brings forth a unique connection due to the dichotomous nature.
With the holidays soon approaching here at YWS, it can heightened feelings of isolation and be challenging for many of our youth. Here is where we need to consider the impact of caring and the comfort it brings during this difficult time for many of our youth. Now consider the impact of your caring towards someone who might be hurting and the comfort this may bring. You can show how much you care in many ways. Whether it be through donations and volunteering at YWS, or simply noticing a homeless youth and acknowledging that they are there. It’s time we break the silence and make youth homelessness a topic amongst our discussions with loved ones, colleagues and those around us.
To everyone who advocates for our youth and invest time, energy and resources in support of YWS, we say thank you. For you will be remembered as someone who gave comfort, stability and warmth this coming holiday season.
Kids or youth?
In our field there has been an on-going discussion around how we refer to those people who use our services. In the late eighties and early nineties there was a move toward using the word client to describe all persons who utilized services in children and family mental health settings. The same can be said for much of the healthcare industry. There was a clinical connotation to this word and it accurately described someone who utilized a service. While the word client permeated clinical reports and formal settings, it did not necessarily become accepted by many child and youth workers in their day to day interactions and discussions.
There were a few different camps when it came to the language we used. Some workers felt that clients aged 6-12 years old should be referred to as children. Adolescent clients were youth or young persons. Youth was defined as someone in the 18-24 year old bracket. I always said kids. Of course this was only in casual settings but I have found myself using the word kids more often than not in formal meetings and discussions. More than once I have been reminded that we serve youth, not kids; but do we?
Here is why I say kids. For me personally, I have kids. Yes, I may have called them children at some point, but they are my kids. Kids has a humanizing effect for me. The word kids evokes a higher level of empathy. There is vulnerability inherent in the word kids. The people who use our services are not a statistic or a cold file defined by a case or ID number. They are a person who is vulnerable and who is deserving of our empathy. Often times they mask their insecurity and vulnerability with bravado and a quick wit or confident swagger. Look beyond that outward shell and I see a kid who is in need. In need of someone who cares, for a warm and dry place to stay, in need of a good meal, in need of being safe. If you hear me refer to someone as a kid, please know that I have done so in a thoughtful way. Of course you are always welcome to correct me.
When most of us think of performing a heroic act our minds conjure up images of someone saving someone else from a burning building, or some other dramatic action we believe to be more in line with what and who a hero is. In social definition, heroism is the action of someone in response to a crisis or situation that is a threat to someone’s life or well-being. Eliminating that threat is considered heroic. But what if that threat never existed because of the actions of one person? Would that be heroic?
In his 2007 best-selling book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts forward the argument that we can only judge heroism if we apply it to events of the past. An example Taleb imagined is what if there had been a United States Congresswoman who managed to have a Bill passed that required all airplane cockpit doors to have three locks and that this law took effect on September 10, 2001. In this imagined scenario the attacks of September 11th might not have happened. Looking back we can say this would have been heroic by savings thousands of lives. But without 9/11 to judge it by..
You are probably wondering what this has to do with YWS and our supporters and staff. I consider the work of our dedicated staff teams and countless volunteers to be heroic. Perhaps your kindness to another person today may be the one thing that stops them from doing something drastic. Perhaps your smile and cheerful greeting revives hope when hope was fading. Perhaps your donation funds a warm bed and hot meal when despair has become too hard to handle, but this meal and bed brings comfort when it is needed the most. You may have saved a life or saved a youth from making irreversible choices. Your actions are heroic.
Through your support of YWS in the fight to end youth homelessness, you are a hero. Our staff teams perform heroic acts dozens of times a shift. Connect with a youth, show them someone cares, ask them how they are doing today, see them as the strong people they truly are and let them know it. Without the support from you, we can only fight half the battle. Just remember, you may be someone’s hero today without knowing it.
Us and Them
Although many of us would like to believe otherwise, how we think of someone else impacts how we not only respond to them but also how we judge someone after the fact, and apply a narrative for the future. When we misjudge or prejudge other people, the risk is that we soon put those persons into the ‘Them’ category, while the people who judges put themselves into the ‘Us’ category. Thus we enter into the danger of Us and Them.
Us and Them is dangerous as it encourages blanket statements which are usually quite negative to the Them and positive to the Us. There is a dehumanizing aspect to Them. This makes people feel better since they aren’t burdened by empathy, which could likely implore someone to act. Not acting can evoke guilty feelings that are uncomfortable. Instead, too often we strive for comfort and this can lead to being dismissive to the plight of others. The other strategy often employed is to attach a value statement to the Them. To see Them as being the author of their own misfortune allows us to once again distance ourselves from empathy. We group the Them into convenient packages – and socially constructed spaces.
My challenge to everyone is to change how you view others in a way which humanizes and individualizes Them. Putting homeless youth in the same space as Us is the most basic change that can do so much good. In this space you are thinking of homeless youth as good people having a hard time. The stereotypes and social construct around youth homelessness are simply untrue. Challenge those stereotypes when you hear them. Even more importantly, challenge yourself should they enter in your head.