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.
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.