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.
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.
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.
Stories are often shared over meals at Youth Without Shelter (YWS). Nancy called YWS to arrange a date for a team of volunteers from her church to provide and serve a “home cooked” meal to YWS’s 50 youth. While visiting the shelter Nancy was asked how she learned about YWS. Well, YWS had been her “home” several years ago. For many years, Nancy never shared that she had any contact with a shelter, let alone had lived in one. But now she has begun to open up, firmly believing that her experience can help others.
Family circumstances were such that Nancy had no choice but to strike out on her own as a teen. For a time she tried balancing living on her own with staying in school. Nancy dreamed of becoming a nurse and was enrolled in a college nursing program. But she simply could not afford rent, and lost her housing. It was a social worker who told Nancy about a newly opened program called the Stay in School Program (SIS) at Youth Without Shelter.
Looking back, Nancy says that coming to YWS was like being welcomed into a “home”. The youth and staff team became her family. “The computer lab, the school supplies, space to study, all of those vital supports helped me stay in school.” Nancy finished the nursing program and graduated with honours. “If I had not come to YWS I would not be a graduate. I would have dropped out.”
Today, Nancy works full-time as a public health nurse specializing in healthy food and nutrition education with youth ages 5 through 18. She is settled with a family of her own. Nancy’s church community is a big part of her life – and it is there that Nancy shares her life journey with young women.
“I am the impact of donations to the shelter. What I have achieved would not have been possible without all those who support YWS. If I a former resident of YWS can come back and give, than any one can give. It does not have to be a big donation, many small donations can make a difference.”
Winona’s father punished her not only with words of anger but with angry fists. Winona knew she had to leave home for her own survival. She set aside money each week from her pay cheque but it was not enough to afford a place of her own. The turning point was when Winona’s brother started to join her father in the physical assaults. Winona arrived at Youth Without Shelter (YWS) feeling the whole world was against her. Most of all Winona found it hard to believe that there were people who would want to help someone like her.
“I came to YWS as someone who was working but homeless. No one had any idea where I worked that I was homeless. I arrived at work in professional clothes like everyone else. I was very focused on getting a second job to save for first and last month rent. Right away the morning routine at the shelter had a positive effect. The 7 am wake-up got me to work on time! The Employment Facilitator really gave me confidence. Together we created the most professional resume. Within weeks I landed that second job.
At YWS I did not feel disadvantaged, my morale was not broken, and I was never made to feel like I lived in a shelter. The support prepared me to be on my own out there. I even put on weight (loved the food). YWS helped me focus and learn to listen. What am I doing now? Working with Laura, the Housing Coordinator I was able to move out to my own place. I am sharing these words while back to visit the YWS Food Bank (really helps me stretch my monthly budget) and picking up an “On The Move Package” (wow: sheets, towels, pots, even cleaning supplies to get me started). My advice to youth in situations like mine: be patient, stay focused on your goals, and don’t fight against those trying to help you.”
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
At 14 years old, he was living with his alcoholic father. In his father’s home he became a statistic, one of the 47% of homeless youth who report being physically abused by a family member. By his fifteenth birthday, he had become a Crown Ward and entered the foster care system. In one year he bounced between multiple foster care and group homes. He acknowledges that he was angry (and a challenge) because in his heart he knew that he did not deserve his fate. When he suffered abuse in a group home at sixteen, he checked himself out of care, and took to the streets. He became one of the hidden homeless, bunking with friends, living in alleys and doorways.
A high school drop-out he drifted from job to job. Wanting a place to call his own, he camped out in parks. One evening after not having eaten for days, he was driven to steal food and he got into trouble with the law. A court mandated rehabilitation period followed. Upon his release with no other options he arrived at Youth Without Shelter (YWS).
His YWS Case Manager began to help him by simply listening. As pieces of his story tumbled out she began to connect him with resources to restore his confidence. Goals were set for each day. Access to a gym was arranged so he could physically tackle the stresses in his life. He was able to secure employment. It was in a meeting with the Housing Workers that the possibility of finishing high school first arose. School was not even on his list of goals.
Shortly after, he moved into the Stay in School Program and enrolled in an adult high school. When completing a school assignment he wrote: “Without Youth Without Shelter, I would not be typing this essay right now. Instead I would probably be thinking of how to get my next meal of where I will sleep tonight.” Wanting to give back (and to complete his community service hours required to graduate) he offered to paint a mural in the emergency residence family room. Little did we know of his hidden artistic talent. Today, a magnificent beach scene continues to welcome youth to YWS. He is now a proud high school graduate, an achievement he never thought possible. Congratulations.
He desperately needed a place to stay, and more immediately food and a bed. He was at a turning point in his life, having been homeless for much of his teen years, calling the street home, and in and out of shelters and jail. A phone call brought him to Youth Without Shelter.
“You’ve given me hope. Through the housing worker, Laura’s tremendous amount of help I have been able to secure housing. Never having acquired housing before, the process seemed foreign and daunting. I thought finding housing impossible after all my failed attempts. Throughout my search at YWS I always had someone to go to with problems, someone to coach me for calls to landlords and to tell me all the right questions to ask. After living in shelters so long the concept of living on my own was kind of scary but knowing I’ll have on-going support once I’m on my own gives me the confidence I need to be successful.
For years I’ve been just credits away from completing high school, yet without the knowledge of how to get myself registered. It has always seemed so far away. Now with the help of my case worker, Emme I’ve obtained my high school credit transcript and will be beginning school at an adult learning centre. Now I believe I may have a shot at the normal life, I’ve been dreaming of since my life started going downhill.
The programs at YWS are so helpful in building a productive life. Daily we have workshops covering a huge range of subjects from housing and employment to hygiene and laundry. Everything one needs to function taught in creative and fun ways to learn. Another program taught is substance abuse which is amazingly helpful to those with abuse problems and has hook-ups with more in-depth counseling. Now the best program I’ve seen by far is being brought out for a night to Cirque du Soleil. That had to be one of the funnest times of my life. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for me. And to all of you who contribute to Youth Without Shelter in any way I have no way to express my gratitude to you other than to say you do more than build lives you save them.” (Mike)
Where is Mike now? In late September Mike moved out to his own place not far from the shelter. He regularly checks in and shares his cooking adventures with the YWS Team. Mike is working closely with the YWS Employment Facilitator to secure part-time employment. He is back in the classroom finishing up high school. Mike now has his sight set on getting to college to complete a Pre-Welding Certificate Apprenticeship Program.
Walk through Jay’s elementary school and you will see his name front and center on the honour student recognition wall. Graduating into high school Jay felt tremendous pressure to continue to excel at school. To relieve that pressure Jay began to self-harm by cutting himself. He hid the cuts on his arms and legs by wearing long sleeves and pants no matter the weather. Jay felt his family could not understand the pressure he was under. Conflict at home escalated. One day in Grade 11 Jay packed up his clothes, left home and sought shelter at Youth Without Shelter (YWS).
When Jay met his YWS Case Manager she encouraged him to talk. She did not judge or criticize, she listened. Jay recalls he felt for the first time his feelings were being “respected”. He continued to attend school everyday although he found it increasingly hard to concentrate and his grades were plummeting. As the trust developed between Jay and the Case Manager she asked him to meet with one of the shelter’s partners, an agency that specializes in youth mental health. In time Jay was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
Jay’s journey has not been an easy one. He has had periods of family reconciliation, hospitalization, new health challenges and adjusting to medication. Jay has been living in his own place now for more than two years. Through it all he has maintained ties to YWS, calling the shelter his “safe haven.”
Jay’s story is an example of how your support is changing lives every day here at YWS. Thanks to you, Jay has a “safe haven” to turn to as he moves forward. Jay credits YWS with teaching him how to budget, so he can maintain independent living. He attends Supper Club at YWS to enjoy a hot meal, have a chat and access the on-site food bank. Jay has enrolled in a college photography program. He aspires to open a business designing custom skateboards. On a recent visit to YWS Jay shared: “I have two numbers on speed dial on my phone: 911 and you, YWS. Youth Without Shelter is #1: 416.748.0110.”