Five-hundred to 1,000 Vancouver youth sleep in the streets every night. Misha used to be one of them. Tonight the 16-year-old shares a muffin and cigarettes with her friends on a downtown sidewalk. They roll a joint as Misha tells her story.
“My father has been using crack for forty years,” said Misha, “my mother is probably out on the res[erve] in a crack-shack.”
She’s slept under a tarpaulin in a forest. She’s rested at shelters, stayed at safe houses and slept on sofas. She has even lived with a man she describes as a physically abusive uncle.
Misha is one of the seventy per cent of youth that report leaving abusive families, according to a report by Covenant House in Vancouver.
There are 65,000 homeless youth in Canada, Raising the Roof reports. November 17 has been proposed as National Youth Homelessness Awareness Day.
Organizers believe the public needs to know more about the lives of so-called “at risk” youth.
Misha’s friend Heather Ross left home eight years ago. She has been on and off the street ever since.
She said that a lack of affordable housing is one of the major causes of youth homelessness. She also said that many youth stay on the streets because they don’t have identification and cannot access social services. She said they cannot find apartments to rent because landlords don’t trust their appearance.
Social housing plan
On July 22, 2010, Vancouver City Council approved a proposal to construct an 8 storey social housing building on 675 East Broadway. Thirty units are reserved for youth at risk.
The Broadway Youth Resource Centre will operate the housing. BYRC currently provides health, education, life skills and legal services to at-risk youth. Vancouver Native Housing Society (VNHS) will operate 103 units. Their residents include homeless people, recovering addicts and people who are mentally ill.
Mount Pleasant Neighbours formed a group to oppose the construction.
According to their petition, “This site plans to house core need adults with mental illnesses and/or substance abuse issues along with at-risk youth.”
“We believe that including youth in a residence with adults facing serious challenges is risky and irresponsible.”
Dave Eddy, CEO of VNHS said that he had answered all the questions about support for the adults in the complex. There will be two staff members in the building, 24/7, he said.
He said that the VNHS has a low tolerance for negative behaviour. Workers would evict or relocate tenants who posed a safety threat.
Shuvo Kabir runs a Macs on the same block as the youth resource centre.
“We have enough problems as it is,” says Kabir, “And that youth club. When they’re inside, they’re okay.
“But they do unsocial activities, they steal, we know who they are. We complain to the police, they tell us, ‘it’s just chips.’”
“They are solving one problem by creating another,” added Kabir.
Darcy Ridell, a resident of the Mount Pleasant area, spoke at the council meeting against the development. She said she is not opposed to social housing.
She is concerned for her 3-year-old’s safety. She pointed out of a window in her heritage home to a swing set in her neighbour’s backyard.
“Those are the swings I was telling you about – two kids swinging, and two guys shooting crack just over the fence,” said Ridell.
Some residents see possibilities in a mixed building.
“They’ll see those old guys everyday and think, ‘Damn I don’t want to be like that.’ It will be an example of what can happen to them if they slip even for a second,” said Mount Pleasant resident Danny Phillips.
“Plus the youth will be inside, in a program, they’ll take care of the building, they’ll be learning trades, going to school. I think it is a good idea,” he said.
The goals of a program like the BYRC sound fine to Misha, but then there’s her reality.
“We’re just jumping into our partying stage, I don’t think mixing recovering addicts with partying youth is a great idea. It’s counter productive, I don’t care what support they have there.” she said.
There are programs for at-risk youth across the country, but a growing number live on the street. Misha is working towards an independent housing agreement with the North Shore Youth Safe House.
She promises to meet her 12 a.m. curfew and go to school everyday. She said that she sometimes breaks the rules on purpose and stays out at night.
She also said that she is glad that her social worker is supportive of her trying to stay on track. Misha wants to apprentice at a tattoo shop when she finishes school.
Her plan for the next three years? “Don’t get dead,” she said.