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Cold Comfort For Street Youth

For much of January and February, Ottawa’s night-time temperature hovered in the brutal -25C range — not counting wind-chill. By late evening, the streets of the downtown core were mostly deserted. People stayed home. It was just too cold.

For Ottawa’s estimated 2,000 homeless — 200 of them teenagers — the cold snap represented more than just an inconvenience. It was a life-and-death struggle with the elements. But for homeless youth, it was double jeopardy.

With no shelter of their own, they had to weigh the perils of frigid weather against the dangers of sleeping in crowded, adult homeless shelters where for even a hardened, older street person, violence and craziness are a constant worry. In winter, the shelter system in Ottawa, with around 700 beds available, is packed and especially tense.

For homeless youth, any frigid winter night poses a tough set of choices: a warm bed but at what price?

In the depths of january’s cold snap — but sitting in the warmth of Operation Go Home’s downtown Ottawa daytime drop-in centre — five street kids gather to discuss the growing plight of homeless teens.

A waifish 17-year-old girl with multiple body piercings, braided hair and the street name “Molotov,” is animatedly explaining how, even at -25, she and her boyfriend would rather stay outside with a good down sleeping bag than in any of the adult homeless shelters:

“We will try squatting in buildings but we’ll get kicked out by the cops, and there’s really no place else to go, so I’ve been couch-hopping, sleeping outside, hiding out in doorways. Whatever warmth we can manage for the night, anything, basically, to avoid sleeping in a shelter where you go into a room with possibly 40 older people. Some of them are not really clean and there’s no privacy and some of them want to come on to you.”

Molotov knows where to find the city’s best outdoor sleeping areas. They’re called “hot spots” because they are dry, provide a decent windbreak and, sometimes, have a vent blowing warm air.

Nodding his head in agreement is the oldest member of the group, a 26-year-old who goes by the name of Yeti. He has been homeless for a decade and says he has been kicked out of every shelter in Ottawa for what he calls “obvious reasons” — he says he has trouble getting along with people in the shelters. He dislikes couch-hopping, although he will crash at a friend’s place now and then. With grim determination he adds:

“I’ve been sleeping outside, wherever the cops won’t stop me. I’ve been doing it for 10 years so I might as well keep doing it. I’m not used to a roof over my head. I’m what you call ‘chronically homeless.'”

Yeti says he’s traded sex for a bed, once. “You do what you have to do to survive out there, especially in the winter.”

Alex, 21 years old, also nods in agreement. After years on the streets, he has recently started a part-time job and been able to move into permanent housing. He speaks bitterly but more softly than the others and he never parts the shaggy black bangs of hair that shield his eyes.

Alex recounts a strange and terrible night at the downtown Salvation Army shelter when he awoke with a naked older man lying on top of him:

“It was really f—– up and scary. I told the guy to f— off and he started touching me and shit and then a friend of mine jumped in and said to me ‘Don’t turn your back or nothing’ and he beat the crap out of the guy.

“The next day they didn’t kick the guy out or nothing. They thought I was crazy from the start, so they didn’t believe me. I guess they thought I was hallucinating, like it was all in my head. So the next night at like two o’clock the same guy tries to stab me with a pocket knife. But it got taken care of, again. It was really f—– up.”

Alex’s story, and similar experiences by many other homeless city kids, puts into focus the pleas by social workers and street kids alike for a separate youth shelter. Currently, there are some 40 beds reserved for homeless youths in Ottawa; at the Salvation Army, the YMCA and a 12-bed facility for young women. If all the beds are taken, as is almost always the case on cold nights, homeless teenagers are forced to use adult shelters.

At the moment, social workers and researchers are only guessing at the actual number of young homeless people in the city. They estimate between 100 and 250, with seasonal fluctuations, but there has never been an official count — one that includes the “couch- hoppers” and other hidden homeless.

One study, released three years ago, that did include information on the city’s homeless youth — but did not count them — paints a grim picture. Susan Farrell and Tim Aubry, of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Social Sciences, conducted the survey from January to May 1999. It included interviews with 149 adults and 81 homeless youths.

The survey, “Describing the Homeless Population of Ottawa Carleton,” found the average age of homeless youths (defined as 12 to 20 years old) was 17 for females and 18 for males. Nearly 90 per cent of both sexes did not complete high school; about a third reported problems due to current or past alcohol abuse; and about 20 per cent of both males and females identified themselves as aboriginal (Ottawa’s overall population is less than two per cent aboriginal).

Forty-one per cent of males and 50 per cent of females said they had spent time in a foster home, group home or reform school. The study found some significant differences between males and females who reported mental health problems in the previous year — 27 per cent of male youths, compared to 44 per cent for females. Eighty-two per cent of males and 56 per cent of females reported drug use. Thirty-six per cent of males reported having recently come out of prison, compared to just eight per cent of homeless female youths.

Significantly, 61 per cent of females said they’d been physically abused compared to 32 per cent of males.

The U of O’s Tim Aubry readily concedes the study is dated, but says it provided a highly disturbing snapshot of the local homeless youth population. Aubry is completing a more comprehensive survey of the city’s homeless, tracking 400 people of all ages. The findings are due to be released later this year, but Aubry says a definitive count will not be included.

Another part of the picture of homeless youth in Ottawa can be seen in national statistics on the nearly 55,000 runaway youths in Canada last year. The data is distributed by Operation Go Home, an organization with offices in Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg. In many categories, the numbers mirror the findings of the U of O study. Its findings are stark:

Sixty-nine per cent of runaways use drugs; 33 per cent of runaway girls rely on prostitution for income; 20 per cent of all runaways exchange sex for a bed and 66 per cent leave home because of abuse.

In 2001 in Ottawa, Operation Go Home recorded 4,817 contacts with youths (some of them on numerous occasions), about half through street outreach programs. Services include counselling, a crisis phone line, referral to shelters and facilitating contact with family.

Marlene Dally, who compiles national statistics on runaways for the RCMP, says any figures on homeless youth are only estimates at best. “It’s difficult to count them (homeless youth) because there is no record. They are not being looked for by law-enforcement and they are not part of the law-enforcement data base, so we don’t have data in Canada to show just how many kids are street children and homeless.”

Experts believe the number of homeless youth has steadily increased over the past few years. David Hulchanski, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban Studies, says research has shown that the profile of Canada’s homeless population has changed:

“Before the early to mid-1980s, it was generally the single male (who was homeless), and in the ’30s and ’40s we called them hobos and other derogatory names. They were homeless but not unhoused because they were living in cheap rooming houses and flop houses and skid road parts of the city.

“Then you come to the ’80s and ’90s and the population does change. You still have all those guys, but there are more of them and they are unhoused … there aren’t flop houses any longer and they can’t afford the cheap rooming houses — there’s the shelter system which we didn’t have before.

“And then you begin to have women and then you begin to have families, so by the ’90s we have the whole range of the population there. The profile clearly includes a lot of youth and this is in addition to the fact that there’s always been some runaway youth who leave their families.

“There were and there are services to help. It’s just that now there’s so many such youth that the services are swamped and that’s why they join the ranks of what we call the homeless now.”

One such deluged service is the Ottawa Innercity Ministries (OIM), which operates on an annual budget of $140,000, all from private donations. It is led by Susan Brandt, an imposing 49-year-old, bubbling with “can-do,” anti-red-tape energy. OIM has only four full-time employees, but uses a volunteer army of 50 to 75 people to make contact with Ottawa’s homeless population. The operation is co-ordinated from a tiny, cluttered office on Bank Street.

Brandt, once a drug addict living on the streets of Ottawa, is now an ordained chaplain in the Canadian Evangelical Christian Church, a certified addiction therapist and a trained nurse. Her organization encounters about 20 to 25 homeless youth each day, but, she stresses, Ottawa Innercity Ministries is a “cradle to grave” help group.

She is disdainful of costly attempts to count and survey the homeless for what she terms “mindless studies,” and is known for having once written for guidance to Catholic missionary Mother Teresa.

OIM’s December, 2002, newsletter lists the names of the 39 street people — of all ages — who died in Ottawa over the previous 12 months, some from sickness, some from exposure, some from old age.

Brandt speaks bluntly, bringing to life the cold statistics she has no time for. She has no doubt, for example, that a high percentage of homeless girls have been sexually abused.

“If I see a young girl on the streets, then I’m seeing a young girl who’s been sexually assaulted. More than likely. Or she’s in some kind of slave relationship with a guy, generally. That’s my assumption — girls engage in survival sex. You do what you gotta do to survive. If you are a trauma survivor then you are really good at disassociation so you are able to make your head disconnect from your body, like ‘they can have my body but they can’t have my head.'”

Brandt’s account of how Ottawa pimps lure homeless girls into prostitution is chilling, doubly so because of her matter-of-fact tone:

“The pimp often sends another girl, a worker, to go over and approach a girl who’s sitting there with a knapsack — and with that look that she’s not a part of the turf — to chat her up and be a girlfriend and offer her a place to stay, to smoke a joint, whatever. And then it’s a slippery slope to prostitution as the person gets ‘loved-up’ by the pimp and gets introduced to a little ‘family’ and is put to work on the front-line sex trade. Or, quite often, is put on the circuit between Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Windsor and Detroit.”

Ottawa police confirm much of what Brandt says, which is why officers on the beat are always on the lookout for vulnerable-looking young people. Unless a complaint is made, or the youth is under 16, there is not much the police can do except ask for identification.

Brandt also makes the point that homeless boys in Ottawa are also victims of sexual abuse: “With young boys, that tends to be a different scene. You get young boys who will get a ‘chicken-hawk’ (a street term for an older man who goes looking for young boys for sex) and the young boy is being taken care of. Many of the young boys are substance abusing and will perform certain sexual acts or allow sexual acts to be performed on them for cash.

“Yet the boys would insist they are not homosexual, that it’s just a means to an end and then get the money, get drugged up and go to a gay bar and beat up people. That happens a lot and that’s an interesting mind flip there.”

Brandt, who also advocates a separate shelter for Ottawa youth, pauses again, before making a dire prediction about where the shelter system is headed:

“Homelessness is last year’s cause and this year it’s going to be all about enforcement and targeted policing and maybe we’re going to add a new wing to the jail and we’re going to set up the shelters as open custody facilities and mix everyone up with mentally ill folks and make a real interesting soup mix.”

On this last point, homeless kids seem to agree with Brandt. Nineteen-year-old Adam, street name Pudge, says that in addition to people with emotional problems, Ottawa’s shelters are already “housing” convicts on parole. As he speaks, Molotov, Yeti and the rest of the group interrupt frequently with loudly supportive comments: “It’s insane! There’s guys in the mission right now that are under house arrest and have to sleep there! It’s scary man … they are sticking, I don’t know, 18-year-old kids in there — someone’s going to get hurt eventually.”

The Union Mission for Men, at 35 Waller St., has 235 beds. The Mission’s executive director, Diane Morrison, confirms there are parolees in the shelter and that homeless youths could end up sleeping next to one. She agrees that young people should have their own shelter. The current system, she says, is overloaded:

“We are right across the street from the youth drop-in centre and there seems to be an awful lot of kids on the street right now and in the shelters and I don’t think they feel comfortable coming in here and anyway it’s just not a good place for them.

“It’s a bad mix to have the youth and adults. I just think they are really vulnerable when they are young. Of the youth who come in here, a lot are hungry. They come in for our meal times. There should be another place for them to eat. They’re young, growing teenagers most of them … ”

Adam, Molotov and the others point out that a homeless youth could easily consume twice the amount of food as an adult. The five talk loudly in a rush to agree with Brandt’s assertion that society is becoming fed up with seeing and hearing about the homeless, that attitudes are hardening, that the destitute will be increasingly treated as criminals. The group agrees that Ottawa’s “society” cares more about saving its professional hockey team than its homeless population.

If plain-talking Susan Brandt and her modest budget are at one end of the spectrum of groups helping homeless youth in Ottawa, the Youth Services Bureau (YSB), with its $10.5-million annual budget (80 per cent from the provincial government) would have to be at the other. For the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2002, the YSB spent $137,000 just on staff travel — nearly as much as Ottawa Innercity Ministries’ entire operating budget. The YSB offers a wide range of services to Ottawa youth, such as meals (second and third helpings allowed), individual and family counselling, an outreach team that communicates directly with kids on the streets, and their newly opened 22-unit transitional housing facility for youth. Many of these programs are innovative and acclaimed.

There are, however, concerns about how the YSB spends at least one large portion of its budget. Some $788,000 of its annual budget is used to operate the downtown YSB drop-in centre which opens only from noon to 7:30 p.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on weekends. It is located down the street from the Operation Go Home facility, which opens at 9 a.m. and has a budget of $150,000 from donations, grants and fundraising. All homeless shelters insist everyone leave by 8 a.m., so Operation Go Home’s coffee and doughnuts at 9 a.m., sponsored by Timothy’s Coffee, is the perfect start to the day for many youths. Often a large group will be clustered near the door, waiting for it to open.

Some street kids raise concerns about visiting the YSB centre, when it does open, primarily because everyone is asked for ID. Those over 20 are turned away, and files are kept on all who are admitted. These three policies are not in place at Operation Go Home, Ottawa Innercity Ministries or the shelters. There is a perception among some young people that the YSB is authoritarian and works too closely with the police.

One homeless youth says he once asked to see his YSB file only to discover it was full of bewildering references to his clothing being “anarchistic.” It is not, he insists. Also unfairly, he thought, the file described his behaviour as aggressive. He still occasionally drops in at the YSB, usually for a shower or to do laundry, but he and his friends are wary of the place.

Denise Vallely, director of the YSB’s Ottawa Central Services, describes the overall atmosphere at the drop-in centre as “structured” and firmly believes that if any youth are put off by having to show ID, they have misunderstood the reason for the policy: “We don’t call it an admission process as much as we call it registration. One of the values that guides our practices is that of safety, so we want to make sure the group is safe, as well as the individual.”

Vallely points out that when kids first enter the centre, they are told “up front” that the YSB works with many other community partners, including the police and that the kids know there is a file kept on them and that they have access to it at all times. She was surprised to hear that such policies turn off some potential users of the YSB drop-in centre. Similarly, she expressed surprise there were complaints about the centre’s hours of operation. “One of the values that guides our practices is accessibility and we want to be accessible to youth,” she says.

The group gathered at Operation Go Home begins discussing their “worst ever” night on the streets in Ottawa. Roxy, 19 years old and the quietest member of the bunch, has only recently found permanent housing. Her solemn, almost whispered recollection of being homeless last winter captures the group’s attention:

“I guess it was a really, really cold night last winter and I had gotten kicked out of a shelter because, um, some crazy lady with AIDS suddenly tried to strangle me and scratch my face.

“Anyways, I got really scared about that because that night I was all by myself. I couldn’t find any of my friends or anything, and I was stuck sleeping outside. It was in the beginning of my being homeless. I was just really scared and I felt really lonely. And cold. And I just wanted a home to go to.”

After Roxy is finished there is silence, except for the steady hum of the furnace. Everyone realizes there is nothing to add. The simple tale perfectly captures the fear, the loneliness and the pain that go with being young and homeless on a bitter winter’s night in Ottawa.

Michael Sourial is a freelance journalist living in Wakefield.