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.
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.
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.
Over the past 30 weeks, we have embarked on a journey through the lenses of youth who have called Youth Without Shelter (YWS) home and their path to success. These powerful stories of resiliency, empowerment and achievements continue to guide us to provide support and care in working towards breaking the cycle of youth homelessness.
Young people often feel silenced by the labels, stereotypes, and assumptions made by society about homelessness and street life. Their voices can often become lost amid the statistics and stigma associated around “poverty” and “homelessness”.
Even though the series has concluded – let us not forget to listen, empower, and continue the fight to end homelessness.. one youth at a time.
My name is R. I have been residing at Youth Without Shelter for 3 months. Prior to arriving, I was scared and did not know anyone to help me feel better. Regardless of these feelings I had no choice to become a resident of Youth Without Shelter.
The first friend I made at YWS turned out to be my room mate. She also arrived the same day as me and was so friendly I felt better about my situation. The staff helped me feel at ease through their counselling support. Frontline staff were always available to listen to me and guide me through family problems and relationships.
I know I can count on them to give me all available options so that I can make informed decisions about my future. Being at YWS I always feel safe as staff have continued to show me how responsible and careful they are about the safety of residents. Case managers have been very supportive in helping me register for school; transfer to work closer to the shelter as well as providing me with future housing options.
It is hard to believe how my life has changed and improved for the better in such a short amount of time. I entered YWS not knowing what to expect and am now enrolled in school and employed. I am currently in grade 12 and am attending an adult education school. Next year I am striving to be in a college Child and Youth Care Worker Program. My dream job is to help youth and make a difference in their lives the same way staff at YWS have helped me.
It’s been a good experience living at YWS and I will always be grateful that I became part of it. Thank you to YWS for providing me with a home away from home.
As shared by R. at YWS’s Annual General Meeting, September 2014
John Roberts is living proof that hard luck stories can have happy endings.
The St. John’s, Newfoundland contractor sponsors children’s hockey and soccer leagues, is a member of the business establishment and is the father of three children.
He is also a former street kid. At 16, he was kicked out of the house. “You ever see the movie, Rebel Without A Cause? That was me.” Roberts, 41 says with a laugh during an interview. The teenager hitchhiked to Toronto in 1986 and was found by police sleeping under a bridge on Keele Street. That was his lucky day. They took him to the newly opened Youth Without Shelter in Etobicoke. He landed a job and stayed at the shelter until he’d saved enough to rent a little place of his own.
Ultimately, he returned to his hometown and opened his business, John The Trimmer, which does more than $1 million worth of business a year building and renovating houses.
“We must believe in our youth”., says Roberts, who brought his family to Ontario this past summer on a vacation and went back to Youth Without Shelter to express his gratitude – even if the individuals he knew no longer worked there.
“I am a businessman who can help others and I owe it to the.”, he says of the shelter staff who had given him so much support. “People say to me that I am self-made. I say, No a lot of people helped me along the way.”
Credit: Trish Crawford, Toronto Star (Living Section), December 22, 2007
Update note: in 2011 John Robert’s flew to Toronto, and attended YWS’s 25th anniversary recognition event. He spoke passionately about his experiences with homelessness and inspired the youth present with possibilities.
Robert’s mother was a sex trade worker and struggled with a crack addiction. He had never known his father. At eight years of age Robert ran away with his sister. Children’s Aid stepped in to provide assistance. Robert has been on his own since he left his adoptive parents home at 16. Independence has been Robert’s goal. He has always had work and maintained his own housing. A summer flash flood washed him out of his rental apartment. Subsequently his apartment was beyond repair. With no savings and no alternatives he landed at Youth Without Shelter (YWS) in the emergency residence. Robert was working full-time in the restaurant industry. As part of his YWS case plan the YWS Employment Specialist worked with Robert to explore opportunities for advancement into a restaurant management role. At the same time the YWS Housing Coordinator connected Robert with supportive youth housing where he can save some money for the future while being employed. At YWS Robert took the next essential steps to living independently and focused on getting his life back in order.
Today, The Home Depot Canada Foundation announced a 2017 partnership with Youth Without Shelter (YWS) with an investment of $125,000. The Home Depot Canada Foundation focuses on supporting initiatives that prevent and end youth homelessness through renovation and repair projects and programs that provide youth access to safe, stable shelter and support services. This gift of $125,000 provides essential project and program funding to Youth Without Shelter. Funds have enabled the replacement of the shelter’s kitchen walk-in combination freezer and refrigerator. The YWS kitchen is the “heart of our home”, a 24 hour operation offering three meals and two snacks daily and facilitating life skills learning. The program funding supports the continued enhancement and growth of YWS’s Employment Program. Priority areas identified by youth in the employment program include the need for increased support with pre-employment trainings, workshops and certifications.
Team Depot is on-site today sharing their energy and skills to bring YWS’s outdoor space to life with fresh, colorful plantings and herbs for container gardening. Lunchtime will bring the YWS youth and staff team and Team Depot together to enjoy a meal prepared by Team Depot!
Thank you to The Home Depot Canada Foundation for your continued investment in young people challenged with homelessness. This gift recognizes that each youth comes to YWS with their own set of strengths, challenges and dreams, each requiring personalized strategies to successfully and safely transition to independent living.