Island of Lost Boys

At-risk youth learn to stand on their own

Invisible homelessness, along with the prejudice youth in this situation face, is what some call a “shadow topic” — an issue too frightening for most people to confront and address.

At-risk youth learn to stand on their own

I walk past a neat picket fence and up the stairs to a character house in Oak Bay. I’m unsure what to expect. There are no toys in the yard, no messy leaves or broken-down bicycles. This could be the home of an elderly couple, the type found in an accent magazine. I knock three times and a sparrow whips out at my head from behind a gutter. I catch my breath just as a man with Marley-style dreadlocks answers the door. He is Graham Kelly, the support worker who lives in the home.

I walk across gleaming hardwood floors and into the cozy living room where a circle of seven young men are gathered over pizza.

Dallas Green is serenading the room through someone’s iPod and, when Kelly asks what’s on, I hear myself and one of the boys parrot, “City and Colour.” Half a dozen heads turn and look at me in surprise.

“Nice choice,” I say and receive an approving nod.

I’m in Mitchell House — a youth transition facility designed to prevent at-risk boys from falling through the cracks. But before images of preteen drug use, scruffy dreadlocks, ripped army pants and a sea of curse words float through your mind, see what’s in front of me: well-dressed, good looking nearly-men, aged 16 to 20 — the kind who make up a football team, or could be completing their last year in cadets. They are well-spoken, laugh easy, scarf pizza and offer each other the last slice. They are comfortable enough with their own stories that they don’t shy from a stranger’s questions. There is bravado, ego and pride, but all with an understood softness — their gazes echo a shared gleam of knowing “Home” isn’t an option anymore.

For now, this is their home and these lost boys rule the roost.

Never-Again Land

Mitchell House is run by Victoria’s Threshold Housing Society, and can room four boys at any given time, with one year being the expected time of tenancy. The residents pay their own way — $375 a month out of pocket or ministry funding, plus food expenses — and, in return, receive almost the same privileges of any college dorm: come and go as you like, do what you want, participate in chores, pay your rent.

“These are guys who want a break and know they have capability,” says Kelly. “I love working with these guys, and they really do deserve a break … but we don’t just take anyone. We’re really particular, and we have to see that a match is going to work. If they only last a month and blow that opportunity it’s hard on everyone in the house — and it makes them feel like it’s one more thing they failed at.”

Right now, four of the boys in the circle are currently living in the house. Lee, the most senior member, has lived there since last September and wears his charm on his sleeve. At 18, Lee already spent three years of his life couch surfing and tenting in Beacon Hill Park. He moves with a dominant swagger, flirts with his smile and is proud to speak up. He dropped out of school at the height of his vagrant turmoil and spent his time with drugs and alcohol. It was one “eureka moment” he says that sent him to his old school counsellor, asking for help with the path back. The counsellor directed him to Mitchell House.

Then there’s Brian, an 18-year-old First Nations man who has lived in 17 different foster homes over the past 10 years. He’s the newest to the house, and is starting his first year of joinery woodworking at Camosun.

Matthew is 19. He was a ward of the ministry for most of his life. On his 19th birthday, the ministry stopped providing care, but Matthew’s foster parents allowed him to stay for two extra months. At the end of that reprieve, Matthew, a graduated cadet, was still without a place to live or a job, and struggling to get into college. A counsellor directed him to the house.

Matt is also 19. He’s quiet and reserved, and his handsome complexion gives way to a wall of crossed arms, but he speaks with a strong voice. He says “hotel ribs and homeless shelters were my best buds” for a long time. One day, he’d had enough, packed up his shelter belongings and marched himself to the house.

From Past to Future

Then, there’s the alumni. Al, 18, looks more like a hunky movie star than someone who’s been through transition housing. He’s tall and tan, wearing a polo shirt and a smile full of white teeth. He lived at the house over a year ago, but stayed for 18 months. Now he’s a lifeguard and lives in a place he nicknames “The Showhouse” with a group of older men. He hopes to become a personal trainer. Nigel, his brother, is 19 and left Mitchell House in 2009 after living there for half a year. Nigel has eyes as mischievous as Harry Potter. He’s now living on a boat in the Inner Harbour, and is currently fulfilling his dream to become a chef by apprenticing at one of the best-known hotels downtown.

Finally, there are the future transitioners. John is 16, and still waiting for a spot in the house. Due to abuse at home, he fled and applied for his youth agreement with the ministry months ago. The ministry launched an investigation of his home, and John’s parent’s “passed.” Since they say they are welcoming John back home — which John says is not OK with him — the ministry has denied him funding. The next step, he says, is to try and find a job to afford rent, but with only a Grade 10 education and little work experience, he’s stuck with temporary housing in the meantime.

In the three years that Kelly has worked at Mitchell House, he’s seen a turnover of about a dozen residents. In the 20 years the house has been serving the community, however, hundreds more faces have floated through its doors.

Unjust judgment

The facility, which formerly resided in Fairfield and moved to Oak Bay last year, is strictly for males. A Threshold Housing sister unit, known as Holly House, was founded in 1997 and is located in Vic West. It houses four girls at a time. In total, the two houses have served 400 residents since opening. Kelly says Holly House typically sees a quicker turnover in residents, perhaps due to greater challenges at-risk women face. This year though, Holly House was stable, while Mitchell House had an unusual turnover: three tenants in a row had to switch out.

“We see the whole continuum of human frailty … these boys have had no healthy adult role models to emulate, and so our goal isn’t just to house someone, but to create a long-term relationship,” says Mark Muldoon, executive director of Threshold Housing Society. “These are not what we call street-entrenched youth, but they still have no fixed address, and they are homeless.”

It’s not just peer pressure, challenging grades and the stress of finding a roof that plagues these boys — stigma attaches itself wherever they go.

“People will look at you and think you’re just lazy and that you don’t want to do anything, but it’s not like that,” says John. “I’ve been looking for a job for so long, I’ve put in a million resumes, but I’m still waiting. It’s those same people who won’t look at you, or frown at you if you have a mohawk or something, who wonder why you can’t get a job. It’s not that you can’t work with people. It’s that you don’t fit in.”

Muldoon says that while it’s easy for us to make judgments about street youth, a much darker issue is lurking below the surface: invisible homelessness. This, along with the prejudice youth in this situation face, is what Muldoon calls a “shadow topic” — an issue too frightening for most people to confront and address.

“Canada may very well hate children,” says Muldoon. “I know, this sounds shocking, but … this answers why we remain so unprepared for youth issues and put such little money into the system, and why childhood poverty remains a public disgrace to a country with such an abundance of resources.”

Muldoon is far from alone in that sentiment. Currently, there is an estimated 65,000 homeless youth in Canada. According to a 2010 UNICEF study, one in six children lives in poverty in Canada, with aboriginal children facing poverty rates that are three times that of other children. On the mental side, about 1.1 million youths — or 15 per cent of Canadians under 20 — suffer from anxiety, depression and drug or alcohol dependency, but only one in five of those are treated for mental illness. And, more children in Canada are incarcerated or under child welfare protection than in most other industrialized countries.

“Children are the most vulnerable group in our society. They are voiceless in government and in the criminal justice system,” says Muldoon. “There is no one to advocate for them, and society largely runs with adults, not youth … We haven’t got a plan in place to deal with youth homelessness.”

Perhaps in an act of acknowledgement, last fall the federal government proposed a motion to declare Nov. 17 “National Youth Homelessness Awareness Day.” Muldoon suggests the increase in childhood need is going up thanks to this increased awareness.

“It is now 21 years since the UN passed its Convention on the Rights of the Child … kids are aware of their own rights like never before,” he says. “One aspect of this education is that youth have also been taught to be aware of abuse when it is happening to them and to avoid it. They are more keen to know when something in their family is harmful and may have the courage to leave home.”

That could explain cases like John, where a 16-year-old is able to stand up to familial and governmental injustice.

“Unfortunately, we’ve educated a generation at one level, but society hasn’t prepared itself for the consequences — namely, what to do with youth who leave home because they perceive it to be dangerous or very unhealthy,” says Muldoon.

Extraordinary gentlemen

When the boys successfully leave the house, they are honoured with a quilt ceremony. The quilts are donated by elderly women in the community. Symbolically, Kelly says these quilts are meant to remind them there is a community to comfort them, even if in spirit. Lee will be the next benefactor.

“Lee’s story is one of triumphant success. He’s had his challenges, but you wouldn’t know it. I call him a star player,” says Kelly.

When Lee first arrived, Kelly can recall moments when Lee had outbursts of frustration, sometimes yelling in the kitchen or just moving with an edge. Over time, he calmed into the sanctuary of the house, became more at ease and made good friendships with the other boys who lived there.

“He’s blossomed so much, creatively and emotionally, he’s in modest recovery from substance use and he’ll be a real one-year graduate of this program,” says Kelly. “I think he found the stability of the house was really useful for him. He seemed to find a way to work through a lot of that stuff that was deep inside.”

Lee, just like the rest of the boys, has plenty of dreams to leap off from. For starters, he’s thinking about getting into massage therapy.

“You come into these pitchforks in the road where you don’t really know what to do, but you just go forward,” says Lee.

That effort of going forward despite it all is something Muldoon says we can all admire.

“These people are our resources for the future. We never know which child will have the solution that no one has thought of before. They all have a treasure to give,” Muldoon says. “But what we do know is that a lot of their dreams are crushed by poverty and, when they get sucked into that world, that resource can be lost. It takes extreme courage and support to struggle back from that edge.”

Lee says he’s been thankful to have a place to rely on, and to have the encouragement of his housemates, but he also says he’s felt a complete change in his own direction.

“To go from walking around with my bag and tent on my back every day, taking showers at the gym and just surviving to, well, this,” he says, looking around the vaulted ceilings and then laughing with the other boys. “People will try to belittle you for your choices, but I know how far I’ve come.” M

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