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Not Enough Support for Homeless Kids In Rural Nova Scotia

Province focuses on emergency shelters and prevention only

by Robert Devet

Scott Smith of Roots House, a drop-in centre for homeless youth in New Glasgow, believes that much more must be done to support this very vulnerable group.  Without support these homeless youth will drift to Halifax or be forced to return to the often abusive situations they were trying to escape in the first place.
Scott Smith of Roots House, a drop-in centre for homeless youth in New Glasgow, believes that much more must be done to support this very vulnerable group.  Without support these homeless youth will drift to Halifax or be forced to return to the often abusive situations they were trying to escape in the first place.

For homeless youth in Halifax there are organizations like Phoenix House.  Phoenix House runs a shelter for homeless kids and offers counselling, a drop-in centre, and supervised living in an affordable apartment.  Phoenix House also runs outreach and prevention programs, helping youth at risk and their families deal with problems before they lead to homelessness.

But for homeless kids in rural Nova Scotia, there is nothing that compares to Phoenix House.  In some towns there are emergency shelters where a homeless kid can stay for a couple of nights, but not for any longer. In towns like Sydney, New Glasgow, Amherst and Yarmouth there are drop-in centres that are open for part of the day.

In many parts of the province there is nothing at all.  

People who work with homeless youth in rural Nova Scotia believe that this is a serious problem. Not enough is being done to support this vulnerable group, they argue, causing teens and young adults to leave their familiar surroundings and gravitate to Halifax - or return to the unsafe situations that caused them to become homeless in the first place.     

Scott Smith is the executive director of  the Pictou County Roots for Youth Society.  The society runs a drop-in centre for homeless youth in New Glasgow. According to Smith, in one year over one hundred different kids used the services his organization offers.  He believes that the actual number of homeless youth just in Pictou County is at least double if not three times as high.

Some of the youths that come to Roots House are struggling financially.  “Things are expensive these days,” says Smith.  “I would dare guess that a huge percentage of Nova Scotians are just one piece of bad news away from becoming homeless.”  And with the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in New Glasgow hovering around $600, that shouldn't be a surprise, Smith adds.

Smith also knows that it's not just a lack of money that causes youth to become homeless.  Abusive and unsafe family situations, addictions, and mental health issues all come into play.  These conditions make homeless youth as a group particularly vulnerable, stressed, and in need of help.

“If you are homeless, your days are spent in survival mode,” says Smith. “That in itself causes stress and anxiety.”  It may also cause you to become a victim of crime.  “It's a reality that those who are homeless are far more likely to be victimized rather than to commit a crime,”says Smith.

Lacking an alternative, many youths may decide to stay in unhealthy relationships. “We are dealing with relationships which could be abusive, there could be drugs, there could be physical or verbal abuse, it could be sexually unsafe. How can they afford to leave that [unsafe] situation for a couple of nights of  emergency services, after which, if things don't work out, they have to go back to that?” Smith asks.

Roots House is a drop-in centre, open for a couple of hours each day of the week, a place where kids can take a shower, get help from a counsellor, securely store their belongings, do their laundry and access the internet. There is also a small amount of funding for overnight emergency services.

Smith argues that much more should be done. For starters, Smith would like to provide a full time shelter in New Glasgow, open all day, each and every day of the year.  And he wants to offer a roof and a bed, not just for a limited number of days but for as long as it takes.  Supportive and affordable housing is next in the package of services that Roots House wants to provide.

“Basically, our objective is to move homeless youth off the path that they are on,” says Smith, “and the overnight shelter is a great way to get them to come in, take the first step, put the band aids on. Supportive housing would be a next step.”  

Bernadette MacDonald agrees with Smith about the need for a full suite of services for homeless kids in rural Nova Scotia. While Smith is still building his case in New Glasgow, Bernadette MacDonald, co-chair of SHYFT House Society in Yarmouth actually ran a full-blown youth shelter for fifteen months in 2011 and 2012.

Until Community Services stopped funding it, that is.

SHYFT House is an elegant old building on a quiet street in Yarmouth, acquired with money from the federal government. The community jumped in to help with the renovation.  The shelter opened in January of 2011, with funding from the community and the feds.  When that money ran out, SHYFT House received emergency funding from Community Services.

But, as of April 2012, Community Services stopped its funding of SHYFT.  The shelter was forced to close and SHYFT House is now once again simply a drop-in centre, open during the day, and on weekdays only.  Much like New Glasgow's Roots House, SHYFT House now only offers counselling, a warm shower, and a safe place during the day.  

During its short existence as a shelter, SHYFT accommodated 34 youths, and staff provided outreach to 24 others.“We could open tomorrow and by the end of the week we would be full again,” says Nicky Hill, SHYFT program manager.

Meanwhile, homeless kids suffer. “We have one young man who has a work placement but he can't go there,” says Hill, explaining that the chaotic circumstances of a homeless life makes it very difficult to focus on the tasks at hand.  “And he can't get assistance because he doesn't have a fixed address,” Hill adds.

People in Yarmouth were not happy with the cuts to SHYFT.  The principal of the local high school spoke out publicly against the closure.  Questions were asked in the legislature and high school students and citizens rallied at the Yarmouth town hall in support.  

Things escalated even further when Community Services withdrew its last remaining funding to SHYFT House, money that was used to pay for an outreach worker.  SHYFT House staff believe it was done in retaliation for speaking out about the cuts.

Denise Peterson-Rafuse, the minister responsible for Community Services, argues that Community Services is doing more than ever before to address the issues.  She points to the creation of nine outreach positions as evidence of her commitment.  These outreach workers will help kids stay in school, find jobs and get help with family problems.

Peterson-Rafuse also argues that a shelter in Yarmouth isn't supported because rural shelters, unlike Phoenix House in Halifax,  aren't sustainable in the long term.  “[Phoenix House has] been able to build up a strong community and corporate support.  They can have an evening event and raise $100,000 for its operational costs, which are very expensive when it is 24/7,” says Peterson-Rafuse.  

And the minister points out that the problem of homeless youth in rural Nova Scotia needs to be  looked at in a holistic manner to make sure that the entire province is covered. “If you are propagating for your particular community than that is a good thing.  However, you are not looking at the whole province,” says the minister.

None of the minister's arguments convince MacDonald. Of course we need to look at this problem in a holistic manner, says MacDonald, that is why we have a Department of Community Services. “What we said to them is 'work with the rural communities all across Nova Scotia, because there are SHYFT House initiatives all over, from Amherst to Kentville'”.

MacDonald thinks that the recent hiring of nine outreach workers by the province is a good thing, but believes that almost per definition these workers will only deal with prevention.  “Prevention is very important,” MacDonald agrees, “but if there is no place for that youth to go, if the family home isn't safe for her for whatever reason, then that youth is homeless and that outreach worker has no place to which to refer her.”

MacDonald readily agrees that she cannot compete with the corporate fund raising capabilities of a Phoenix House.  But that fact alone shouldn't determine social policy.  Both Smith in New Glasgow and MacDonald in Yarmouth are convinced that shelters that operate without time constraints and in tandem with affordable housing solutions and all kinds of support will ultimately save the government a lot of money.

“The savings are astronomical”, says Smith.  “If you consider youths who have been in jail, who have used the mental health system, the hospital, emergency care, not even looking at addictions, the projection of savings after ten years would be in the millions.”  

“And it is the right thing to do,” Smith adds.

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