You may not find them sleeping on park benches, or lined up at soup kitchens but the number of homeless youth in Edmonton is cause for concern.
Susan McGee with Homeward Trust Edmonton said youth referrals to the Youth Housing First program have been coming in faster than they can keep up.
Since the program started in July 2016, the program has received 214 referrals and housed 71 youth.
“Many of us have children, many of us have teenagers and those can be tough years for any family,” McGee said.
“We’re not talking about just those tough years. They’re youth who really are not able to go home.”
The Youth Housing First program primarily houses homeless people between the ages of 16 and 25, but some youth on the street are as young as 12.
The youngest teen in the program is 15.
“Family dynamics are a major contributor to youth homelessness,” McGee said.
The recent homeless count estimated a couple hundred youth living without a permanent home, but McGee said that’s not a true picture.
“Youth tend to be couch surfers,” she said, “so they’re more difficult to catch in something like a homeless count.”
Nigel was one of those couch surfers who went from house to house for seven months, but his first stint of homelessness started when he was only 15.
He had once attended university and had trying going back to school; a near impossible task with no home and drinking himself into “oblivion.”
Nigel learned about the Youth Housing First program through a friend, and has lived in his own apartment for the past six months.
He credits the program and his support worker with saving his life.
“I’ve known the lowest denomination for years now,” he said from his apartment. “You just become obsessed with yourself. You’re willing to steal – to do the most horrendous properties that come along with human behaviour.”
Support workers negotiate a rental rate and provide a subsidy for the youth. Over the next nine months, they connect their client to supports that will help them with addictions, mental health and legal issues. Once settled, they then work on day-to-day living like accessing the food bank or finding a day care. The end goal is to encourage the youth to find a job or go back to school.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
Nigel plans to attend college in the fall.
“I want to transcend my pain, I want to fix my pain. I want to evolve beyond the point of pain.”
Nigel admits every day is still a struggle with drugs and alcohol, but for the first time in a long time, he sees a future.
“When you accommodate the ones that are suffering and the ones that are in a difficult situation when they’re super young, then they might have a future.”