Youth are the invisible homeless
Walk down a bustling hallway at any of Langley’s high schools and you will most likely walk past a homeless teenager.
A homeless youth looks like any other student, said Loren Roberts, manager of youth homelessness for Aldergrove Neighbourhood Services.
He or she can be a straight A student who lives in a vehicle, or buses in from a shelter outside of Langley each day to get to class. She can be a youth who is couch surfing or living with her friend’s family, he said.
“A lot of the kids we work with aren’t homeless because of their own behaviour. Sometimes it is something as shocking as their family has up and left them.
“Other times, it is family tragedy, the home is abusive and unsafe to go to, there has been a brain injury of one of the parents. It can be for so many reasons,” Roberts said.
There are also young people whose own behaviour has led them to homelessness, from criminal actions and substance abuse to just not wanting to live with their parents’ rules or curfew, he said.
Most of the schools in Langley offer a lunch program. Administrators try and take care of clothing needs when some youth come to school with no jackets, or shoes that are falling apart, as has been the case several times this year.
“I think there is this misconception out there that a homeless teen is someone begging out on the streets,” said Langley Secondary principal Dawne Tomlinson. “They look like any other student in our school.
“The difference that nobody sees is they aren’t living with any family members, they are couch surfing and the only safe place for them is school.”
She has one student who takes a bus and Skytrain to get to LSS each day. He had addictions but now doesn’t miss a day of school and will graduate.
Tomlinson said often kids will surf from couch to couch but too many times, a student will come to her on a Friday afternoon and say he has nowhere to sleep that weekend.
“And that’s where there is trouble, because the ministry is closed and we can’t get them services on a Friday.”
At LSS, they feed 60 to 100 kids a lunch every day.
Out of school population of 850, that is way too high a number and speaks to the levels of poverty in Langley, she said.
“We live in our middle class world and we don’t see the amount of poverty in Langley, in our own backyard.”
This statement came on the same day a report found B.C. has the worst child poverty rate in Canada, again.
The lunch program costs LSS around $13,000 to operate per year, which all comes from fundraising dollars, she said.
After seeing too many teens in such crisis situations, she started a community round table and through that the Aldergrove Neighbourhood Services has an office open on Mondays at the school, to help those most at risk.
There is also a family support worker at the school and very determined counsellors. Through these services, teens aren’t reaching a crisis point as often, she said.
The number of homeless youth in Langley fluctuates, but on some nights, up to six have nowhere to live or sleep.
But what makes Langley’s homeless youth unique is there is no emergency shelter for them here. There are no beds and no transitional housing.
“There are youth shelters we can send them to in Abbotsford and in Surrey and those places are very accommodating, but we need something permanent in Langley.
“Most of these kids attend school here and are ingrained here,” Roberts said. “Their friends are here.”
Last year, Roberts was in front of both Langley councils pleading for funding to operate a Youth Extreme Weather Response shelter.
He received the funding for last year.
This year will be the first “full” year of the weather shelter response which will provide overnight shelter, in partnership with St. Dunstan’s Church in Aldergrove.
ANS will also provide SafeRide, which will provide youth with a ride, whether it be a taxi, bus ticket or some way to get them to overnight shelter just by calling the agency.
Funding for this year’s initiative has come from in-kind support from the Langley RCMP, Ministry of Child and Family Development and the Child and Youth sub-committee and Healthier Communities Partnership.
With the weather beginning to turn colder, Roberts has already put into action two extreme weather response nights, once when the rain came sideways and the other when temperatures dipped below zero. The response will piggyback on the Gateway of Hope’s Extreme Weather Response for adults.
“We had a phone call from a friend wanting to find shelter for a teen but otherwise we didn’t have any youth use the shelter service that night,” Roberts said of the first call.
“It’s going to be that way where we won’t always need a bed,” he said.
But the point is there is a need for some help for at risk and homeless youth in the form of some kind of transitional housing.
But like the Gateway of Hope, it will have to be a full community response.
“Our local municipalities are open to learning more and the Ministry of Child Development has been supportive to our program so all of this makes us hopeful,” said Roberts.
“Really we don’t need anything as big as the Gateway of Hope. We need a two- or three-bed program.”
Housing Minister Rich Coleman was instrumental in getting provincial funding for Gateway of Hope, and a major community response, spearheaded by the four Langley Rotary Clubs, helped its all come together.
Roberts would love to see the same efforts made for youth.
If you are a youth or know of a youth who needs shelter during extreme weather, call 604-530-6477 between 7 p.m. and midnight, and transportation to the shelter will be arranged.