A community advocate says the park at the corner of Wallace Street and  Comox Avenue is one place homeless youth in Nanaimo have been staying.

A community advocate says the park at the corner of Wallace Street and Comox Avenue is one place homeless youth in Nanaimo have been staying.

Nanaimo council strikes committee to help get youth out of the cold

NANAIMO – City council has tasked a four-person team to find an emergency solution for homeless youth in Nanaimo.

Audrey Bouvet’s 16-year-old daughter will tuck into bed, in a warm house, with hot chocolate within reach if she wakes.

But Bouvet, a community advocate, knows of 10 homeless youth who won’t have that same shelter as the mercury drops below zero and snow falls.

There’s a “huge missing link here and you don’t have a lot of time. It’s really snowing – it’s actually really snowing outside right now,” said Bouvet to Nanaimo city council Monday, during a call for a cold weather youth shelter. “Your youth are sleeping at Georgia Avenue school, they are sleeping in the park behind John Barsby school, they are sleeping at the park where the hut is at the corner of Wallace … where I guess people thought if they cleared out the bush, they could clear out some of the riff raff that was there.

“Well, some of the riff raff was your homeless youth, your homeless 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old kids that have no where else to go but access shelter there.”

Council swiftly struck a four-person team last week that had seven days to look at how to bring youth out of the cold on an emergency basis. The deadline is Monday (Dec. 12), when options are expected to go before council.

During Monday’s meeting, Coun. Gord Fuller said he knows there is a severe lack of service around youth homelessness, adding it’s definitely a good idea, but he doesn’t know how the city would do it this year.

Coun. Diane Brennan said the issue was more urgent than asking for a report and inquired if the community development department could be set up with the city social planner, Bouvet and anyone else necessary to see if there could be a quicker response.

A young woman with pink and purple hair didn’t give her name, but told council two weeks ago having to see Bouvet’s face as Bouvet left her at Tim Horton’s at night was “heartbreaking,” that the safe house had been full and the cold weather shelter wouldn’t let her in.

“Buildings, like, even with just, like, a pillow and blanket on the floor would be way warmer than sleeping outside; from, like, experience,” she said.

Fuller said the problem is liability issues.

“I was out on the street at 14. I knew every apartment in New Brunswick in the town I lived in that had access into them that didn’t have security doors so I could stay warm at night in the middle of the 20-below weather,” he said. “I know what you mean and I’ve had to do that. If you’re looking at the city allocating a building I am sure we might be able to come up with something relatively quickly but we’ll have to take a look at that and have to discuss that with city staff.”

Mayor Bill McKay made the motion for Fuller, Brennan, city social planner John Horn and Bouvet to work together on a solution.

Nanaimo has four shelters, including one specifically for young people aged 14 to 19.

Salish Lelum, the safe house, is the only shelter that accepts youth, according to Bouvet, who said there are qualifiers to other programs, such as Samaritan House, which need to be able to call the Ministry of Child and Family Development or a guardian to obtain permission. If the youth has fallen through the crack and has no ministry involvement, no guardian or the youth is not prepared to provide the guardian’s name, they face barriers to accessing the service.

The Unitarian Shelter, New Hope Centre emergency shelter for men and Samaritan House emergency shelter for women are for adults and while they report it’s rare for youth to knock on their doors, they can get permission for young people to stay overnight from the ministry or other guardians. But there are other issues in mixing youth and adults, from liability to the safety of youth, including concerns of exploitation of girls.

Samaritan House has 14 beds. If it has space to put the youth somewhere separate where they are safe because the shelter is low-barrier – where women don’t have to be sober or have stable mental health to get services – and if they get permission from the ministry, they can put them in, but Violet Hayes, executive director, says they don’t get a lot of youth.

There also isn’t enough space. The shelter is “overloaded,” with 112 per cent occupancy last month and people being put on mats. It’s “basically a crisis,” Hayes said.

“We certainly wouldn’t turn [youth] away; we would try and find help for them, calling the ministry and if we were full, I mean we have had situations where the ministry has put them up in a hotel or something and then tried to link them with a social worker,” she said, although she notes it’s been a long time since she’s heard of that happening.

Grace Elliott-Nielsen, executive director of Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Centre, was not available to talk about the experience of the eight-bed safe house, but Horn told the News Bulletin he’s been regularly told lots of youth are being turned away.

According to Horn, who said the group met Wednesday, they’ve come up with options but wouldn’t say what they were until council had a chance to look at them. The goal, he said, is to put something in place this winter as quickly as possible that creates options for the kids. He said it has to be a supervised, staffed proposition, not just a building, because otherwise it’s creating more risk.

Horn said in the last decade, youth have been in the picture when determining who needs to be supported in maintaining housing, but he also says there hasn’t been a large population of homeless youth that would be seen, for example, any given day in Victoria. Youth haven’t been a big chunk of the homeless picture in Nanaimo, “but I can see now that that’s started to shift,” he said.

As of last Thursday the Unitarian shelter was looking into whether it could put together a cold weather shelter for youth. It requires appropriate staffing, the space and funding.

Marla Thorburn, executive director, said she had no idea there were youth without housing or that it was this big of an issue in Nanaimo.

“It certainly pulls the heart strings with the below-zero temperatures especially. If there’s anything we can do to help, we will,” she said.