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.
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.
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.”
Growing up George’s family life was in constant turmoil. Early on George spent time in foster care when his Dad could not control his temper. At 16, George made the decision to leave home when his father insisted he drop out of school and make money, an education was not needed. George was determined to get an education. He turned to “couch surfing” moving from one friends home to the next. When that was no longer an option he found his way to a shelter. Throughout it all George remained in school. It was a shelter housing worker who recommended George apply to Youth Without Shelter’s Stay in School Program. He applied and moved in.
George finished Grade 12 and attended an adult high school to take additional courses and improve his marks. George’s favorite subject is Chemistry, where he achieved a grade of 95%. What’s next for George? College- George’s goal is to be a paramedic. George: “I’ve found the resources I need to be able to focus on finishing school. I can concentrate on my studies; there are computers, quite spaces. Bus fare had become a big obstacle in getting to school. I really value the TTC pass provided in the Stay in School Program.”
Note: George has now transitioned to independent living, joined the Canadian Armed Forces and is pursuing his dream of becoming a paramedic.