Growing up on streets

Growing up on streets trumps dysfunctional home life. Family dynamics, not drugs or alcohol, is the main reason why thousands of teens choose to run away from home

By Bronwyn McCarter
Vancouver Sun, November 18, 2010


Christopher Brown, a 19-year-old homeless man, stood barefoot in a damp black hoodie, shivering, one bleak afternoon on Granville Street. Photograph by: Mark Van Manen, PNG

His hard-luck story began, he said, when he was kicked out of his home at a young age. He spent days sitting on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery until the police found him and put him in foster care, he recalled in an interview.

As he grew older, Brown said he tired of being shuffled from foster home to foster home, feeling that no one truly cared for him. At the age of 18, he turned to the streets.

“It’s a hard life out here,” he said.

Unfortunately, Brown isn’t unique in feeling like the streets are the only place left to go. He is one of 65,000 homeless teenagers in Canada who struggle to find a safe, dry place to sleep each night.

“You don’t know if you’re gonna wake up in a car with a bag over your head, or with a knife to your throat,” said Brown, who mostly sleeps with a group of friends in various locations on Vancouver’s sidewalks.

On the streets, Brown said, teens make their own families. It is often hard to find someone to trust, but when that connection is made on the streets, he said, the relationships are strong and more meaningful than those he made at school.

Brown has been trying to get a job for more than three years. He began his search while in foster care, but now that he is homeless he said it impossible to find employment.

“No one wants to hire someone like me,” Brown said.

Employers don’t want to hire a person who looks dirty, or doesn’t have an address. They worry such an employee would turn away customers, and potentially hurt their businesses.

That traps teens in a vicious cycle: They have nowhere to go except the streets, but they can’t get jobs because they don’t have stable families to live with, or easy access to showers and clean clothes.

Money is by far the hardest thing to come by for homeless teens. While food, used clothing, showers and laundry facilities can be found in downtown Vancouver, young people often start trying to collect money through pan handling — until desperation forces them to consider more drastic measures, such as prostitution and drug dealing.

For many people, dropping a couple of quarters into someone’s hat is a difficult decision. They are unsure where the money will be spent: Will it go toward a new pair of shoes, an umbrella, or someone’s next high?

Directions Youth Services offers a job program that is Brown’s personal favourite. The program is called Street Youth Job Action (SYJA), and allows young people to clean up the streets, do needle sweeps and leave at the end of the day with some cash in their pockets.

Brown and other teens who sleep on Vancouver’s streets applaud the SYJA program because they get a chance to give back to the community.

Many people believe it is drugs or alcohol that bring young people to the streets. While that may be true for some, experts say it is often family dynamics that drive teens to the wet streets of Vancouver. Some are runaways from home; others are kicked out. Drugs often become the problem after they reach the streets.

Many homeless young people also have mental health problems and turn to drugs as a way of self-medicating, said Michelle Clausius, associate director of development and communications at Covenant House, a facility for youth on Drake Street.

Jennifer Hanrahan, a manager at Directions Youth Services Centre, said crystal meth is one of the leading drugs causing addiction among young people. It is the cheapest drug on the market, and easily available.

However, not all teens on the street are involved with drugs. A group of homeless teenagers on Granville recently told The Vancouver Sun they would never smoke anything more harmful than marijuana because becoming addicted to a stronger drug often means “the drugs start doing you, you don’t do the drugs.”

Some of Brown’s friends said their biggest dream is one day to get off the streets, and they believe that doing hard drugs could make it harder to get a roof over their heads.

Brown’s two biggest goals, he said, are to find a home and go to college to study culinary arts. When asked what he thought would get him off the streets, he said that if he was given $125 more a month on his welfare cheque, he would be able to find a place to live. Then, he said, he could shower every day, feel safe sleeping, and try to pull himself together to get a job.

Brown now gets the standard welfare rental rate of $375 a month for housing, but in Vancouver it is getting increasingly hard to find a place in which to live for that price.

According to a recent report by the Carnegie Community Action Project, single-room occupancy hotel rooms in the Downtown Eastside rented at welfare-friendly rates have gone down from 29 per cent of available rooms in 2009, to 12 per cent this year.

Helping homeless teens may seem like a hopeless task. How does society know where to start?

Is it housing, food, and employment? Or just someone to believe in them and to encourage them along the way? People who work with homeless teens say the solutions vary.

Hanrahan believes young people need the help of people who are non-judgmental and who will convey they are worth caring for, because sometimes they feel they have little self-worth.

Every teen has potential, if given the chance. If a community can help one teen follow his or her dream, advocates say, it can become a win-win situation for society and, most importantly, for the young person on the street.

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