Summit aims to open community’s eyes to unhoused youth

Housed Victorians asked to disprove ingrained idea that ‘there is nothing else we can do’

Adam Clarkson, organizer of the summit “Belonging Victoria: Exploring the Possibilities of Community” hopes the housed population will take time to consider what they can do to help.

Housed Victorians asked to disprove ingrained idea that ‘there is nothing else we can do’

Jeff is 17. He left home three months ago to escape physical abuse from his stepfather. Sometimes, he sleeps in his car or crashes on a friend’s couch, but like many Victoria youth in a similar situation, Jeff does not see himself as “homeless” — he just doesn’t have anywhere to live right now.

“One of the most fascinating things we’ve found is that youth are so resilient, and most of the un-housed youth we deal with don’t identify with the idea of being homeless,” says Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. “People have this misconception that it’s their [the youths’] fault — that these are runaways or slackers. Really, so many factors can drive a person to the streets. These are people who can be re-housed, but they need help.”

To stir real dialogue on just how much help residents have to offer, a dedicated group of individuals is inviting all housed community members to be part of an event that is taking a new, creative look at the issue: the first-ever Victoria Youth Homelessness Summit, “Belonging Victoria: Exploring the Possibilities of Community.”

The two-day event will spend Fri., Oct. 19, and Sat., Oct. 20, creatively exploring the issue of youth homelessness and strengthening community through presentations, workshops, permaculture, living theatre, music, art, yoga, film, a world café and a “galaxy class.”

The by-donation experience will then shoot all proceeds into a new community-funded Surf-Yoga-Life Skills Retreat for underprivileged youth in Victoria.

“When we blame the government and point at what else it should be doing, it really disempowers people because it gives the idea that there’s nothing else we can do,” says Adam Clarkson, organizer of the event. “Is it possible for our community to nurture and save this finite number of youth on our streets? Of course it is. But people feel hopeless, and we want to show them there is no reason to feel that way. We can change this.”

Clarkson, who took his masters degree in epidemiology and health care within marginalized urban populations, has spent much of his academic career raising awareness around youth homelessness. When he realized the greater community was missing from those discussions, though, he developed the idea for this year’s summit.

“The microscope is forever being turned on the homeless population, but we spend so little time examining ourselves,” says Clarkson. “Really, the discomfort the greater community shows with the homeless population is a reflection of its discomfort with vulnerability. We say ‘the homeless deal with mental health issues’ to make ourselves feel like it doesn’t affect us, like we are less vulnerable, but housed people have these same issues.”

Clarkson spent time during his masters addressing something called “poverty mind,” where the poverty felt by specific populations was reflected in inner attitudes as much as outer circumstances. In some cases, when outer circumstances changed for the better, an unchanged mindset would keep individuals locked in the same mode of behaviour. Clarkson’s solution sounds simple, and it’s one he hopes Victorians will latch on to at the summit.

“You can either spend all your time identifying all the problems, or throw that energy into nurturing the soil. Solutions grow naturally — they just do, but it’s all about the mindset,” he says. “You have to focus on what you can bring to the situation; what gifts you offer.”

To aid a positive mind, Clarkson’s goal is to get residents together to discuss realistic ways individuals can force a change for the estimated 600 homeless youth currently in Victoria.

He has brought in more than a dozen speakers, including some homeless youth in the community, the coalition’s Wynn-Williams, Dr. Bernie Pauly of UVic, Graham Kelly and Rebekah Humphrey from Threshold Housing Society, Christina Chan of Heart & Hands Health Collective Community Acupuncture, Matt Mazur (DJ Elfmaster) “galaxy class” host and others.

With a “stone soup” community lunch each day, vendors fair, film screenings, yoga sessions, social-change dialogues and expert panels with homeless youth, there’s a good chance Clarkson will meet his goal. With winter weather approaching, Wynn-Williams thinks the summit couldn’t come at a more essential time.

“As much as we talk about homlessness in this city, we have not given as much attention to homeless youth, our most vulnerable citizens,” says Wynn-Williams. “They are in our community, and this is an important time to raise awareness. It’s frightening to see the numbers of un-housed youth we have here, but this is also a problem that can be solved.” M

For more information, visit the website at BelongingVictoria.com. The event is held at Odd Fellows Hall (1315 Douglas) Friday, 9am-9pm and Saturday, 7:30am-5:30pm. Donations suggested.

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