This is the fifth and final instalment of a Global News series called ‘On The Brink,’ which profiles people who are struggling with the rising cost of living. In this story, we hear from a young person about the challenges youth face while struggling with housing insecurity, and what some organizations are doing to help.
Kat Bagnald knows what it’s like to be on the brink.
At the young age of 20, she’s already been through a lot. She struggled with housing insecurity since she was 16 and has spent the last four years between shelters, couches, and the streets.
Being a young person can be challenging at the best of times, but when you’re also struggling with not having a stable place to live, life becomes especially difficult.
“It’s a really taxing experience mentally for anyone, but especially for a youth who’s still got a developing brain,” said Bagnald. “It’s a really harsh environment. Youth get taken advantage of a lot, because we’re vulnerable.”
She said there are a lot of dangers youth can face while living on the streets.
“I’ve been jumped by people I’ve trusted,” she said. “It’s really dangerous out there.”
Trying to fend for yourself at such a young age can also be lonely.
“When you’re unhoused, there’s so many barriers,” said Bagnald. “There’s evident ones, like not having food and a roof over your head, but also (not) having supportive people around you as well.”
After being unable to find a shelter bed in her hometown of Halifax, Bagnald made the more-than 300-kilometre move to Yarmouth, a small town on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia.
She’s now spent more than two months at SHYFT, which provides temporary housing for up to seven youths aged 16-24.
In addition to the shelter beds, SHYFT also provides programming and resources to help young people realize their potential and set goals.
“I’m finally able to start getting back to finding a job, getting an income and being able to support myself again,” said Bagnald. “I definitely have goals that I’d like to complete. I’d like to get myself housed on my own not too long from now. I know I can. I’m going to.”
Coming out stronger
Shanna Grant, an outreach worker for SHYFT in Yarmouth, said the organization is much more than a shelter.
They also help youth with anything from providing transportation, to accompanying them to appointments, providing groceries, helping them get phones, and improving their resumes.
“If there’s a service a youth is looking for that we don’t provide, we’ll make sure to find the people who do, and refer them to those folks,” she added.
She noted that SHYFT is LGBTQ+ friendly, and has a program that provides free gender-affirming gear to trans youth.
Grant said it’s especially important to be supportive of youth of all genders and identities, who face additional barriers when it comes to housing.
“Sometimes that’s why people become homeless, because they’re not accepted by their families,” she said.
They also provide something that many youth struggling with the cost of living are lacking: fun.
Over the summer, they got to go out in a big paddle boat on Lake Milo, a local swimming spot, to get some sun and learn how to work together for a common goal.
“We get to do fun stuff too, and weave some education in there,” Grant said.
Getting to work with young people like Bagnald, who have overcome so much, is “amazing and humbling,” said Grant.
“It’s really hard some days, but then when you get those wins – no matter how big or small they are – you don’t even think of the potentially not-so-great day you had earlier,” she said.
“It’s inspiring to see what some of them go through and how they come out the other side 10 times stronger.”
Robin Walker, a SHYFT outreach worker in the nearby community of Shelburne, said homelessness looks “very different” in rural communities than it does in the city.
While there are many people who are unhoused, there are also those who have a place to live, but those places may be “less than adequate.”
“It’s awful the state that some people live in,” she said. “They are housed, but not in a great way.”
‘There’s so few options’
Marianne McTague, the intensive case manager with Phoenix Youth Programs in Halifax, said their youth shelter is turning away 20 to 30 people a day due to a lack of capacity.
For the first time in Phoenix history, they are now asking for donations of items like tents and sleeping bags to help those who are forced to sleep outside.
“We’ve never been in a position where we’ve had to ask for boots-on-the-ground-type items,” she said. “There’s so many youth that are living in challenging circumstances and are having to sleep rough.”
McTague said youth have a particularly difficult time finding housing because they are more likely to lack rental and credit history, making landlords more reluctant to rent to them when competition for housing is so significant.
There are additional barriers for youth in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as Indigenous youth and people of colour.
“There’s so few options for the people that actually need housing, and it’s so heartbreaking and it’s really hard to see,” she said.
As well, McTague said more and more young people are putting off post-secondary education because they are too concerned with finding a place to live.
“If you’re sleeping in a tent and living rough, if you’re sleeping in stairwells and just trying to keep out of the weather, and then be expected to wake up and go to school and go to work … it’s tough to work alongside that,” she said. “Until we address the housing crisis, folks will continue to struggle.”
Miia Suokonautio, the executive director of YWCA Halifax, said it’s important to recognize that youth are not a “homogenous group,” and the experiences of one young person are likely very different from the experiences of another.
“Understanding that youth come to housing insecurity in different ways is very, very important,” Suokonautio explained. “So in some cases, the family situation has broken down. In some cases, the family situation isn’t safe at all. In some cases, there is no family situation – so you’re aging out of child welfare, for example, into homelessness.”
The YWCA provides a number of supports and services for children, expectant mothers, youth and adults. They run housing programs for youth and young mothers, as well as a safehouse for predominantly young people escaping sexual exploitation.
The organization has also formed a partnership with the Youth Project, where a team member focuses on housing support for LGBTQ+ youth.
Suokonautio said youth in particular should be a priority for housing because encampments are especially dangerous for them due to a lack of facilities and an increased risk of being victimized for things like sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“You can’t lock your front door, you can’t have a space to go to that’s safe, on your own,” she said.
But while housing young people should be a priority, the fact remains that finding housing is especially challenging.
“As a young person, if there are 20 people vying for one unit, you won’t be at the top of the pile,” she said.
She said across the sector, housing support workers are “burning out” – a term she doesn’t use lightly.
“They’re really challenged because they’re hired to do a job and to help people find and access and maintain housing, and they’re having a very, very hard time because there’s nothing out there,” she said.
Like everyone Global News has spoken to over the course of the On the Brink series, Suokonautio said more housing and supportive housing stock is desperately needed – as well as additional supports to help youth transition to adulthood.
“We need better transitions out of child welfare back into community. We need better transitions from … corrections into community,” she said.
“We need more people who are able to support youth where they’re at, we need landlords who are willing to rent to youth, and we need housing workers who are able to support and vouch for youth and build skills. So there’s a whole complex system that needs to happen to be able to meet the needs of youth.”
She added that while it may be tricky for youth to navigate these complex systems, she recommended that people who need help call 211 or visit the 211 website to find resources.
‘Don’t give up on yourself’
Bagnald, meanwhile, is looking forward to a bright future.
Through the help and support of the people at SHYFT, she said she’s gaining independence and taking steps toward finding a job, and eventually, her own home.
“I’d really like to just be able to find my own place,” she said. “I’m looking at different job opportunities right now.”
She may have had to overcome a lot, but she’s proud of where she is now.
“I had to do a lot of things myself … I work for everything that I have, really hard,” she said. “It’s given me a lens – I feel less like taking for granted a lot of what I have.”
Bagnald has a message for other young people who are struggling.
“Don’t give up on yourself,” she said. “You can do it. You can get through this.”