Youth homelessness is a genuine and alarming concern in Chilliwack.
According to the most recent count (in 2014), 44 per cent of the homeless population in Chilliwack are between the ages of 15 and 19. That’s more than double the regional average.
Having been open for a year and a half now, the Chilliwack Cyrus Centre sees the problem first hand, on a daily basis.
“They keep coming,” Executive Director Les Talvio said. Staff had to turn away 21 youth in February 2016 alone.
No sooner does a bed become empty than there is someone waiting to fill it.
Cyrus Centre Chilliwack has five available shelter beds, four of which are first-come, first-served, open referral. The other is a transition bed, by referral.
They are almost always running at full capacity.
“Honestly, it means you have staff that are shedding a lot of tears,” he said, of having to turn away youth who show up at the doorstep looking for a safe place to sleep.
They work the phones, calling the Abbotsford Cyrus Centre location, calling the families to try to work something out, calling outreach workers to find a solution, even if only a temporary one.
Sometimes youth will say ‘Forget it,’ and they’ll leave. But where they end up going is the frightening part.
Cyrus Centre staff’s primary goal is to see families restored wherever possible, and they will explore every option of doing so. But home isn’t always a safe space. Home is often the reason that youth end up on the streets.
Some are escaping abuse or conflict from their family. Others leave in order to fulfill their basic needs when parents are suffering with poverty, addiction or serious mental health problems. Some are simply abandoned.
They might couch surf with a friend for a while, until that runs out, or turns dangerous.
They can very easily find themselves in “unsafe situations with unsavoury persons,” Les explained. “Youth are being exploited for something to eat, for clean laundry, for a shower, for a bed to sleep in.”
Or they might end up sleeping in a park, abandoned buildings, or vehicles.
Many will drop out of school. If they’re not already involved, it’s common for youth to become involved with drugs or crime, to fend off hunger, sleeplessness, distress.
Life can become very chaotic, very quickly.
One thing that homeless youth in Chilliwack can count on is that dinner will be served at the Cyrus Centre, every day at 6 p.m.
That meal might be a starting point for youth exiting the streets. They serve an average of 15 to 20 youth per night.
If there’s a spot open at the centre, they’ll get a clean bed, fresh pyjamas, toiletries, and three meals per day.
“Youth that are staying with us have to be working on a plan,” Les said. With access to on-site school classes, employment counselling, and housing services, youth have resources to better their situation, but they have to show that they are committed to it.
If re-integrating into their family home or with extended family isn’t an option, staff will work with other agencies to find an alternative, safe, appropriate place for them to live.
Some might participate in a youth agreement with MCFD, allowing them to apply for one of 11 youth units in the Village. Others might integrate into a foster home or group home. But not all homeless youth can be accommodated in the existing beds.
The Cyrus Centre is working with the City’s Homelessness Action Task Force, and they hope to see funding for a minimum of two more shelter beds in the near future, as a start. Les also discussed the need for second-stage supportive housing, which could be semi-independent living with house parents.
In the meantime, awareness among the Chilliwack community needs to grow.
“Youth homelessness isn’t as visible,” Les said. “They’re not as identifiable to the public.”
Homeless youth might have ripped jeans, but so do the rest of their peers. Homeless youth may not necessarily be pushing a shopping cart full of empty bottles down the street, but they might be shuffling from couch to couch.
“For the most part, we see youth who are episodically homeless,” Les explained. If staff can intervene at an early stage, youth are far less likely to become part of the chronically homeless.
Ultimately, it’s important that the issue of youth homelessness doesn’t get swept under the rug.
The Cyrus Centre is a community funded shelter, operating almost entirely on donations and fundraisers.
“We feel it’s been sustainable that way,” Les said. By growing and diversifying that community support and, importantly, the recognition of this specific population, they will be able to better support Chilliwack’s at-risk youth.