Growing Pains: Why do so many young people end up on Vancouver's streets?


Photo by Kevin Hollett


Bright, multi-coloured papers plaster the walls at the PHS Drug Users Resource Centre on East Cordova. Notices to sign up for the street soccer league, to join support groups or access health care services are displayed proudly and visibly, and the sense of community and belonging that distinguishes the busy centre are clear. Nearby, people are watching movies, preparing for lunch, socializing with their neighbours.


K. Rufus (first name withheld) emerges from the bustle of the centre. He’s not yet 21, and on the day we meet, he’s wearing a baseball cap and thick-rimmed glasses, sipping a Coke. He frequently leaves his Woodward’s apartment to get involved in the centre’s youth activities, such as cooking and writing groups.


As little as less than a year ago, Rufus was suffering through a relapse. He started using drugs after being sober, losing his spot in the Covenant House Rights of Passage program. Once again, he resumed life on Vancouver’s streets, where he’d been on and off since the age of 17.


Rufus is one of thousands of youth, between the ages of 16 and 24, who become homeless. They live on the streets because they have aged out of foster care, struggle with addictions or mental illness, or have run away from a dysfunctional home environment. 



Seeking refuge on the streets


An estimated 65,000 youth in Canada were reported homeless or living in emergency shelters in 2009. The 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count found 397 unaccompanied youth under the age of 25. These findings amounted to the highest number of homeless youth ever found in the region, a nine per cent increase from 2008 and a 34 per cent increase from 2005. 


These numbers are generally considered a significant underestimate—actual numbers can be as high as 700—due to the number of youth who are homeless but aren’t counted in the official surveys. 


Many young people couch surf, stay at friends’ places or sleep outside, fearful of using services or speaking to adult outreach workers. Such was the case with Rufus when he was living on the streets. At the time, his prize sleeping spots were behind the bathhouse near Davie and Thurlow or under the Burrard Bridge.


“[When I was 17] I avoided outreach workers because I had this constant fear, because the Ministry [of Children and Family Development (MCFD)] used to do snatch and grabs for youth and I was afraid of that,” he says. “They’d either put the kids in foster care or take them back to their parents. I do have a little mistrust around adults because a lot of adults have led me astray.”


In a written statement to Megaphone, MCFD wrote, “We are working with our partners across government to ensure that youth who are homeless—or at risk—have access to shelter and services to help return them to their families or MCFD care and supports.”


Rufus, who had run both from his mother’s house and the foster care system, wasn’t keen to return to either of those.


He grew up on a reserve in a small town on Vancouver Island. By the age of eight, he was already in foster care and being juggled between foster homes and his mom.


When he was 16, a MCFD service worker suggested he be put on a youth agreement where the government would give him about $1,000 a month to live on his own.


“They really seem to keep these youth agreements a secret, it’s only if they see you’re jumping from foster home to foster home,” said Rufus, who often struggled with a revolving door of caseworkers. “I had tried living with my mom again, but wasn’t able to. There’s no money in the house and she’s trying to survive herself.”


However, the youth agreement came with a condition—Rufus would either have to be in school or working full-time. Two years into his agreement, he dropped out.


“They were supposed to help me transition when I got kicked off, but only gave me a couple months warning,” he says. “So it was very tough.”


So he went back to living tumultuously with his mom. Then, when he was just four months shy of his 19th birthday, Rufus decided he would go to Vancouver as soon as he was of legal age. After bouts of homelessness in the city, he was put in touch with PHS’ youth coordinator, Vicky Shearer, last year. Within months, she had found him stable housing.


“A lot of the times, [youth] have poorly transitioned from foster care,” says Shearer, who has three teenaged foster kids of her own. “They have to go through this entire comprehension process of understanding that soon they’ll be out there with no resources.”


Shearer, a strong advocate for the housing-first strategy, helps youth under 25 in the Downtown Eastside connect to the services they need, while staying on as their case manager. She says affordable housing is one of the main barriers to homeless or street-involved youth, and many organizations put too many bureaucratic steps between youth and long-term, affordable housing.


“At the end of the day, all anybody needs is housing,” she says. “There’s a disconnection between youth services and adult services. Some youth service providers don’t really understand the processes of supportive housing. They refer youth to another housing transition worker. So there’re all these steps in between that lose people.”


In 2001, the City of Toronto underwent a paradigm shift in how it addressed street homelessness from treatment to housing first. Four years later, it implemented the Streets to Homes Youth Program, one of the first to view youth homelessness through this strategy.


The program highlights a successful use of this approach combined with community collaboration, outreach and individualized case management, according to a 2012 “Housing Homeless Youth in Vancouver” study.


Vancouver has made moves towards incorporating this strategy. In 2008, Vancouver Foundation launched a Youth Homelessness Initiative, partnering with community organizations to tackle the issue. Although focused on a housing-first approach, it also incorporates employmenttraining programs.



Employment or housing first?


A housing-first strategy could benefit homeless youth such as Rufus who are ready to seek stable housing. However, not all youth, particularly those more street-involved and entrenched in the culture, feel this way. To that end, many Vancouver services create programming to address the heterogeneity of the youth population.


“I just winged it when I got here,” says 30-year-old Slinky (full name withheld), sitting on the couch in the basement of the YouthCo building. “You’ve got nothing to worry about when you’re homeless. I think about it as home-free.”


Many youth who’ve been on the streets for an extended period of time feel comfortable there. 


“I’ve got people who have acquired housing and they won’t sleep in their apartments because it doesn’t feel right,” says Directions Youth Services’ John Kehler. “We try to explain that if you have an apartment and you have a key, nobody says you have to sleep there right away.”


Bad experiences with single room occupancy buildings (SROs) and shelters contribute to this adjustment.


As soon as he turned 16, Slinky moved from the Maritimes to Vancouver, with a four-year stint in Toronto. Noticing the lack of resources in his home province at a young age and spending time in foster care, he decided to travel west.


When he arrived, he spent some time in Rain City Housing shelters and tells horror stories about some SROs. Not surprisingly, he chose to live outside when possible. 


On the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Slinky found a sense of community and camaraderie. Similarly, Rufus developed a real connection to other youth living on the streets, who shared his growing mistrust of adults. Like Slinky, Rufus found street-living safer, in many ways, than some of the SROs.


“I lived in a place where there was no freakin’ door and you’re paying $375 a month,” Rufus says with a shudder. “You’re stuck with these small rooms and you have to share a bathroom. I didn’t even know what cockroaches were because we didn’t have any in my hometown. Now, they’re one of my biggest fears.”


Sleeping under the Burrard Bridge gave Rufus refuge, but also close proximity to Directions Youth Services where he was put in touch with Shearer. Rufus frequently signed up for Directions’ Street Youth Job Action (SYJA) program—giving youth casual employment for the day.


“I used to think a 9-5 job was my only option, and it used to stress me out,” Slinky says, shifting on the YouthCo couch, barely containing his energy. “I was like, ‘I’m not made for this.’”


Slinky is a creative guy. He spends some of his time writing comic strips, operas and plays. He says he is better suited for casual, low-structure employment.


After a few years on the streets, he was referred to YouthCo, an organization that works with youth under 30 who are HIV- or hepatitis C-positive, after he tested positive for the latter resulting from intravenous drug use.


“A lot of my clients here, they’re very modest,” says YouthCo’s Wren Crandall. “So they may not realize, or advocate for their needs as they see it. With Slinky, you can say, is he choosing it? Or did he fall through the cracks? He sees it as choosing it. I want to make sure he can choose whatever life he wants, but when the services are available, they’re actually available.”


Crandall sees a lot of clients in Slinky’s position, who have become entrenched in the street culture or who, for a variety of reasons, struggle with the structure of a 9-5, entry-level job. In these situations, she focuses on engaging youth in casual work, as peer outreach workers or helping her with some of the program decision-making.


Before he aged out of Directions’ SYJA program, Slinky was an active worker.



Diverse resources needed to address diverse issues


Directions looks at their clients through three different lenses: mental health and addictions, housing, and employment, prioritizing one over the others depending on a client’s unique situation. Staff then refer people to places like the Covenant House or St. Paul’s Hospital.


Reasons for youth to pass through the doors of Directions include aging out of foster care, fleeing an abusive family or a youth being referred to by her family experiencing compassion fatigue, according to Kehler. 


Despite the diversity, many youth who end up homeless or street-involved are healing from past abuses and suffer from a type of mental illness or addiction, says Convenant House’s Michelle Clausius.


“Most youth start taking substances like crystal meth because they want to stay awake through the night,” she says. “They’re to afraid to fall asleep.”


Although living outside allowed Rufus to hide, in other ways, the streets provided no escape.


“I suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma,” he says. “There was a lot of abuse growing up, sexual abuse on the reserve that no one really sees. The biggest thing about being on the streets is there are often triggers and then, boom. It’s there and you can’t run away, you just have to deal with it. I’d just go to drugs, I guess.


“Drugs are really common because they help you cope with the fact that you’re on the streets and help you face it better.” 


Covenant House offers a 54-bed crisis shelter, the only youth-specific shelter in Vancouver, for youth to stay as they work with coordinators. 


The shelter is usually at capacity and emergency mats are used so as to not turn anyone away.


The organization connects youth with housing workers as well as other resources such as Directions and the Inner City Mental Health Project. 


According to Covenant House, 70 per cent of their clients are male, as women typically find a place to stay at a friend’s more easily. First Nations youth make up about 30 per cent of the 1,500 to 1,600 who pass through per year, according to Clausius. 


“The best thing for us to do is to try and build a relationship with the youth,” she says, admitting their programs are very structured. “Some thrive on the structure because they haven’t had it in the past, whereas with others, there’s more of a struggle.”


For Rufus, the high-barrier Covenant House became too much of a battle. However, low-barrier shelters, which mixed him in with adults, also proved to be difficult as he felt unsafe. It left him to stay outdoors as much as possible and use SYJA whenever he could, until he met Shearer.


“Shelter politics is like alchemy,” says YouthCo’s Crandall. “The high-barrier, really safe places tend to be a bit more conservative, whereas the low-barrier shelters can be unsafe for kids. I find it really difficult to place people.”



 Photo by Rebecca Bolwitt.


“Communities have to … provide longer-term solutions”


It’s easy for many to find fault with the Ministry. If there were better transition services for kids aging out of foster care or fleeing dysfunctional homes, agencies wouldn’t be scrambling to help youth once they’re already street-involved.


“I don’t think the solution to youth homelessness is as simple as the government saying yes to more and more,” says Kehler. “Communities have to be able to provide longer-term solutions. 


“The more that can be spent on youth workers in the school, youth workers in community centres, youth workers in various other arenas engaging youth so they can have almost like a community-generated solution, the better.”


Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth B.C., echoes Kehler’s sentiments, looking for more investment from communities and a consistent model throughout the regions. Not all communities have access to food banks, for example, forcing youth to move.


She would also like to see more cities creating low-barrier activities for youth development and access to inexpensive transit.


“Young people need to get support no matter where they are,” Turpel-Lafond says. “I’d like to see outreach entail more than just referrals. It shouldn’t be up to youth to find support, they need our guidance.”


One of the reasons Rufus found such success with Shearer was because she took the initiative.


“I had workers try and help find housing, but they pretty much want you to do it,” he says. “And that’s tough because you’re already dealing with a lot.”


“I’m asking young people here ridiculous questions that I was never asked when I was a kid,” says Kehler. “Where do you want to live? Do you want to go to treatment? Community engagement can prevent the deterioration.” 



Looking ahead


Calgary became the first Canadian city to develop a strategy to end youth homelessness in 2011. With Vancouver Foundation’s housing-first youth initiative, it seems this city is moving toward a similar youth-specific homelessness approach.


Still, more can be done, such as increasing collaboration between government and non-government organizations or implementing a citywide system all organizations can easily refer. And more commitment can come from the Ministry and its service workers, says Turpel-Lafond, who sees workers’ unwillingness to take on a difficult child.


Rufus suspects a tumultuous relationship with his last ministry service worker caused him to receive little notice of his youth agreement termination.


“Young people can be very angry and a lot of service workers don’t want to help them,” says Turpel-Lafond. “This needs to change. Things will be rough for everyone involved for the first six to eight weeks, but we need to suck it up and look behind the anger and frustration.”


Developing positive adult relationships becomes important for kids who’ve often been abandoned or abused by those in charge of caring for them.


Vancouver Foundation continues to find community partnerships and strategies to connect youth to housing, while the government is working on three housing developments for youth. However, two of them mix youth with adults.


The Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks draws from its youth members to develop ideas on how to improve the situation. Some include delaying the age young people transition out of care, and focus on building permanent positive relationships with supportive adults.


Organizations such as Directions, Covenant House and YouthCo continue their outreach work surrounding prevention through education and harm reduction.


But as Shearer pointed to the lack of connectedness between youth services and adult services, Crandall worries about her clients aging out of the YouthCo program. As Slinky just turned 30 this week, they must begin his transition.


“I’m trying to encourage a healthy community of street-involved people,” says Crandall. “I would like to think that when clients leave, they’re able and informed to make healthier decisions.”


In some cases, Crandall takes clients to other community groups they might identify with before aging out of YouthCo. For more creative types, she introduces them to people at the Purple Thistle Centre. For those active in the Downtown Eastside community, it’s PHS’ Drug Users Resource Centre.


“I’ll introduce them to people so they get to know faces,” she says. “So when their time’s up, it’ll be like, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll see you later at the Purple Thistle.’ And it becomes a new community for them.”


Approaching his 21st birthday, Rufus seems to be settling in well with the PHS community. On welfare for now, he packs a backpack of food supplies Shearer left for him in her office.


He has since graduated high school and reconnected with his mother. He plans to find work helping youth as a peer mentor, drawing from his own experiences. In the meantime, he continues to write for Another Slice, a zine published by Directions.


“Writing became my escape and my way to cope with everything because I was able to let things out that I didn’t want to hold anymore,” he says. “It’s important people here my stories. It’s a reality often unheard.

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