Numbers can be shocking when said out loud
On February 1st I joined hundreds of volunteers canvasing for donations for our Time4Change event. As the day wore on I found myself looking for new things to say to passersby to elicit donations. It was a very cold day at the end of a very cold week so all of the TTC riders were well aware of how it felt being cold temporarily. Some riders walked by and smiled saying sorry they didn’t have change. Others simply walked past without a glance. I needed to improve my message. Yonge/Bloor Station is a multi-level station with plenty of traffic. I have a loud voice. I thought, I can do better. I decided to simply put some statistics out there.
“Over 2,000 kids have no place to call home tonight! You can help to change that!”
When I first said it I surprised myself at the emotional reaction I had to my own words. It obviously had an effect on those within earshot. Multiple people turned and looked. Many dug into pockets and purses to grab some change. My message was a success. I suddenly worried that I was making the truth a slogan and was diminishing its importance by using it as some sort of pitch. My internal conversation led to a decision that the truth is important and for those who do not donate perhaps they can gain some education.
Raising funds is fantastic and the event was a big success. What cannot be measured is the impact that our art installations and message had on the people who we came into contact with. Every volunteer had at least one story of someone asking them about YWS and/or youth homelessness. For most it was multiple interactions. Spreading the message and engaging the amazing people of Toronto is a large part of T4C.
Thank you Toronto for your generosity and your interest. You showed you care.
(Photo credit: Durham College student. Steve Doherty, YWS Executive Director on left and T4C volunteer, actor David Reale on right)
You can be an agent of change on T4C Day Feb. 1st
For 8 years, YWS ran the Tokens4Change event each February. For the year leading up to the event, students created art installations that signified for them the issues around youth homelessness. On the day of the event, the youth displayed and performed their creations. At the same time an army of over 600 volunteers spread out throughout the TTC system and the PATH system accepting donations in support of YWS. This event raised funds to support the high cost of transit for the youth we support. The funds have also supported the wrap around support programs operated by YWS.
Times have changed. Tokens are being phased out. Presto is in. And technology has changed the way we exchange money. It was time for a rebranding. Rebranding is a difficult task, especially when it involves a recognized and successful event such as T4C. There was a certain level of stewardship we felt in adopting a new name. We had to look at what is at the core of the event and how to then transfer that into a new name. It is still one youth, one gesture at a time. We still want to make change. We know Torontonians want to help us make those changes and we all want to make those changes now, it is time. It is time for change and the time is now! Time4Change was born.
You can be an agent of change this Friday, February 1st. A single small gesture can change the life of a youth in need. Simply by texting you can donate. Donating some of your spare Loonies and Toonies can allow you to proudly tell your co-workers that you changed the life of someone today! When they ask why you can tell them that youth homelessness is not acceptable and that it is time for change.
For more information about Time4Change and how to support YWS go to: www.time4changenow.com
As you have probably already noticed, our Welcome Home YWS Campaign is in full swing. Our tag line has great meaning for me. “When no one is expecting them home…we are.” This is truly at the core of our work and it has far greater meaning during the holiday season. While the holidays bring great joy, for many the holidays bring great sadness borne out of loneliness and despair.
It is common to hear people talk about how the holidays are about family. This message seems to be ubiquitous this time of year. I’ll change the narrative and suggest that when we say family it is truly about belonging and being important to someone else. I have heard from our residents how tough it is over the holidays. But I have also heard about how meaningful the support of YWS is and how much it matters. YWS is a place for people to belong, to be part of something larger than yourself. This applies to our residents, our staff team, and the hundreds of volunteers who make amazing happen each day.
The holidays tug on our heart strings and I find myself more deeply thoughtful about how much it means to tell someone how great it is to see them that day. YWS is home for so many. It has been home for over 30,000 youth since we began 32 years ago. That is the population of a small town. Or a very large family of people who found a place to connect, a place to belong, and a place where someone was always expecting them home.
On a personal note I would like to acknowledge the passing of Dr. Richard (Dick) Meen. He was a friend and significant mentor of mine who helped to guide my thinking and approach to working with young people. He saw them as capable, strong, and resilient. He also saw young people as someone to learn from; if you let them. He said something once that has never left my mind. Dick said, “Zero empathy plus zero compassion equals zero treatment.” He was so very right.
The journey of developing a five-year strategic plan
For many of us, our companies and groups go through a strategic planning process every few years. This plan helps to guide and shape the future of an organization. Strategic plans set out priorities and goals with indicators along the way. Ultimately, any organization has a vision of what they want to look like four or five years down the road. At YWS we have just embarked on the journey of developing a five-year strategic plan.
YWS is no different than any other organization. Where we are going and what we will become are important questions. Like a private sector company, we have to be responsive to our clients. Similarly, we do our best to predict challenges along the way. One of the most important ways that we differ from most private sector companies is that we include advocacy and education as core components of our service. For us, it isn’t about profits; we are focused on providing services for which we do not charge a fee to the user.
The landscape of providing services to those facing homelessness is ever changing. Demographics change, funding requirements change, social impacts change. What does not change for us is a commitment to always being there in a youth’s time of need. How that will look in five years is our focus. We want to be able to deliver even more quality, positively impactful services which not only allow for our youth to find housing, but help youth to not have to face homelessness at all.
We recently held our Annual General Meeting. Once again I learned lessons taught by the young people we support, and those who have lived with us in the past. I learned about hopefulness, determination, the importance of kindness. But most importantly I was taught a lesson in humility.
I was humbled by the capacity of the human spirit and the ability of those people we support to carry on despite what can seem like insurmountable odds. But I was also humbled by the common thread that came through from those who shared their stories with us that night. It is the immense power of kindness and compassion to help to heal a bruised spirit in time of need. Hope is instilled through caring and it is this hope which helps to allow the tremendous capabilities of these youth to rise and take hold.
As I listened to those stories shared with us, I was struck by the simplicity of what is at the core of our work at YWS. In my office, I have a framed poster on the wall that was given to me by an agency I worked for previously. It is my mantra for both the staff and for the people we support. It simply reads; Be nice. Work hard. There is a relationship intrinsic in these two phrases. Because sometimes one has to work hard at being nice. In the end there is a profound effect that these two principles can have on a youth in need of kindness and hope.
Back to school: the challenge is to succeed in spite of the odds being against you
It is that time of year where we all make lists of back to school supplies and lists of tasks we need to complete so that our kids are ready for school. Most of our lists look like this:
- Lunch bag
- Pencil case
- Pens, pencils, coloured pencils
- School shoes and clothes
- Sign all medical and registration forms
- Register for bus route
Now imagine if your list also included:
- Figure out how to pay for transit
- Explain to the school that you don’t have a parent to sign your forms
- Find someone to pay for activity fees
- Find a place to live so that you have an address to actually put on the forms
- Hope nobody spots that your shoes are worn through and your clothes are just as worn out and don’t fit
That is what the list looks like for so many of our youth living on the street or moving around from couch to couch. Now add the stress that the second list also has attached to it and it certainly isn’t a recipe for success. The challenge is to succeed in spite of the odds being against you.
33 years ago, YWS was created by a caring and committed group of teachers and guidance counsellors who recognized the need for shelter for so many of the students they worked with. In one way, our foundations were built on education. We recognize the same thing those courageous people did, without support and stability the odds are stacked against your opportunity to be successful. This is why we at YWS work hard every day to provide the environment that can support the success of those persons who have no place to call home. Everyone deserves to have someone meet them as they come home, who asks how your day was, how school was today, for a safe place to do homework with the basic supplies needed to compete in today’s challenging and tech savvy education system.
As you work with your kids this August getting them ready to go back to school, enjoy every minute of it. Instill in your children an appreciation for what they have (and not just the material things). Instill an appreciation for a safe and supportive place to live. What an outstanding opportunity for you to sit with your kids and visit our website so that you can explore the opportunities that exist to support our residents in their quest to make their lives better. Show them that we can all make a difference in the lives of others. Even though our kids may not always listen to us, they most certainly always watch us. You have the chance to teach the first lesson of this school year.
The ripples we create
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Robert Kennedy
Since I was a young boy I have been a fan of Robert Kennedy. At the time of his death I was too young to truly appreciate his words and the impact that he had on so many young people and his country. In many ways the impact of his deeds and words is better understood through the lens of time. Do we romanticize his memory? Perhaps, but his words have stood the test of time. They are as true today as they were in the 1960’s.
We live in a time where there seems to be a certain amount of cynicism that surrounds our heroes of the day. The seemingly inevitable fall from grace is magnified by 24-hour media and the multitude of means by which we can critique and spread opinion, often times without a thought about the truth of what is said. We rush to judgement without knowing all of the facts. Once something is said loudly and often enough, it becomes the accepted truth.
Social opinion sadly falls prey to the spin of the rush to judgement. Our need to categorize and then decide who to pin blame upon before moving on to the next issue defies my understanding. The idea of thoughtfulness as a virtue is almost forgotten. Instead it has been replaced by extremism, by right and wrong, by left and right. We seem to have forgotten to employ our conscience and values when forming opinions.
Poverty, homelessness, and social supports are a much discussed topic these days. With a new provincial government in place there is great speculation on how this will impact the social fabric of Ontario in general and Toronto in particular. Rather than waiting for the government to decide on issues, it is the perfect opportunity for each person to do our own part to make positive social change. It is time for each of us to create our own ripple. Make it your goal to be the beginning of the current that will sweep down the walls.
This past winter was a hard one. Low temperatures and unpredictable weather made for a season which often threatened the health of homeless people throughout the city. This was reflected in the media with regular reports of long waits, full shelters, and desperate situations. Now that we are coming upon the summer the same concerns always seem to dissipate. While the threat of serious health risks, including death, may have changed, the issue of homelessness has not.
In his final speech, Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying;
“…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. “
I have always believed this to be true not only of government, but of the people as well. Ghandi made a similar reference to true greatness being measured by how a society treats its weakest members.
Being concerned about someone should be an always thing, not a some time thing. Yes, we should increase our concern, but we should be vigilant to not allow our caring about others to wane simply because it is not in the front of our mind or in front of our eyes in headlines. Those on the fringes of our society will remain on the fringe if nothing changes. Advocating for opportunity and fairness is as important in the summer as it is in the winter. Unless we act, those who are homeless in July will remain that way in January.
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.