CM: Old Strathcona Youth Society – A Place Where Youth Matter
By Amanda Labonte
Old Strathcona Youth Society (OSYS), located at 10325 83 Ave is a street-level, safe drop-in space for vulnerable youth who are between the ages of 14 –24. Youth are provided with support, resources, harm reduction materials, and fun activities.
We sat down with Shona Hickmore, a registered social worker and current program coordinator for OSYS, and Dill Prusko, the outreach worker with OSYS, to learn more about youth houselessness experience.
What are some of the impacts that OSYS has on youth? What does OSYS mean to youth?
We see about 160 unique youth in a month and sometimes up to 40 in a day. If it’s hard to hear about all their stories or to support them imagine how hard it must be to live their lives. When they come to OSYS they’re aware that the person who helps them pick out the outfit for the first day of school, the person that holds their hand while they do a pregnancy test, or the person who checks in on them, cares. They leave knowing that they can come back, and we want to hear how the rest of the story turns out.
Here in the building youth feel important and know they matter to somebody. Ultimately, I think that will be the legacy of OSYS. We opened in 1998 and youth still stop in to see Karen, our executive director, from those first few years because this was important in their lives because they felt supported. I think that that speaks to the value of it, speaks to the value of connection of community, of basic human dignity, and treating people like people.
They like the staff here and it’s because we treat them with respect, and they feel safe here to let those walls down. They don’t have to be for the most part anything but themselves here. OSYS is so important because we can help them with further steps in their life, but we also are happy for them right now that they’re here with us.
How is serving youth experiencing houselessness or housing insecurity different from serving adult populations?
Their brain is still developing, as well as everything they’re going through, so you really have to scaffold life with them. They have very limited life experience, but they also have so much life experience in other ways. They have less exposure to the different kinds of resources that are available to them. There are so many things you have to know in order to access a resource. For example, how to get there, what is going to be asked if and when you get there, do you have to bring documents?
Legally there are a lot of adult resources youth can’t access until they’re 18. All of our best housing teams outside of YESS [Youth Empowerment and Support Services] are all adult focused. Another thing is if a youth is under 18 there is the barrier of a need for parental permission.
At 16 you can help a youth apply to become an independent minor which is helpful. I’m thinking of a particular youth we have now who’s not 16 until October and really needs to be able to control their own situation. You do your best to navigate to resources that may not require [documentation]. We know YESS is not going to require youth to have ID to access the Armory Resource Centre or to access Nexus Overnight Shelter, but it really does limit what you can do especially with youth coming out of situations with huge trauma.
We are referring to youth as “being unhoused” why is that important and how does language have meaning?
I like unhoused because a lot of our youth have, what I like to think of as, conditional homes. Some of them will say ” no I’m homeless” but some of them will say “well, no, I have a home I just can’t deal with that person.” A lot of it is for youth who use substances, their parents want them to be clean if they’re going to be back with their parents. The youth do still recognize oftentimes those places as home or as important places to them and we never want to diminish the importance of those places.
The youth describe different places as home. They might say OSYS is my home, it does not necessarily mean home is where they are sleeping and living, but home is the community that they are in and the people that they surround themselves with. They have their community they just do not have a house right now.
We’ve talked a little bit about some of the barriers particularly around ID. What are some of the other barriers you see that youth experience when they’re trying to obtain housing?
It can be hard to even get that process started because it’s difficult to do those basic life skills. Something that I’ve noticed working here is that youth are asked to make appointments on time, have their paperwork filled out, and have it all together in order to get housed. Sometimes time does not exist for youth. In order to get housing, they must first go through an entire process when they are just focusing on being alive right now.
Another really big barrier for youth is for a lot of resources, you need stable contact information. For Alberta Works, you need a phone number or an e-mail address. How are you supposed to set up viewings with Housing First if you do not have a phone or a way for your Housing First worker to contact you? If you’re a youth and you have to be back at the shelter to get a bed somewhere between four and five o’clock and you have all these appointments, how are you going to manage that? Especially when you have to take all your stuff with you.
Wait times just to get in the system. For example, trying to get somebody in with coordinated access and housing first, it’s sometimes one to three months or longer. It’s really difficult to conceptualize three months when you’re trying to decide where am I going to sleep tonight. I’m not thinking three months in advance, I’m thinking about tonight.
There’s a lot of stigma around youth experiencing houselessness. How would you respond to those stigmas or what would you like to see the shift in that conversation be?
I don’t know if it’s around youth specifically, but I think I’d like to see a shift in conversation that brings the idea of dignity more to the forefront. We have this conversation with stigma like “oh, they must be unwell” or “they must be on something” or that these youth, these people are lacking in something.
I don’t think many people realize how close they are also to being unhoused. If I missed two paychecks, for example, I would not have my place. I do have support but having support is not a choice. We are all for the most part a few degrees away from being where they are. When it comes to stigma, you’re othering, but we are not others from them, we are all, for the most part, pretty close to being where they are.
What would you like to see the broader community do to help support youth?
People need to start advocating for people who are not themselves. For example, writing your MLA, becoming more active politically but also doing small things, like donating to nonprofits or grassroots organizations or donating your time. Educating themselves, if you are living in a community know what’s in your community and know who is in your community.
If you see a homeless or unhoused person on the street, you do not need to walk across the street. You do not need to send all those implied messages of worth or value. Do not treat them like they are lesser.
If you volunteer with an organization that supports the houseless population, do not assume that you suddenly understand what’s going on for those people, you don’t. If you go into those spaces, know that you are a visitor, know that you are privileged, and be respectful.
Also, knowing your privilege and using it. I can’t give my privilege back, I can’t give that to others, but I can use it for them. You can use your voice for other people. There are important conversations to have in important moments, quiet moments, and small moments. To be somebody who advocates even when no one is looking at you, when you get nothing from it, and maybe even when you pay the price for doing it.
What is one message that you would like people take away from the work being done?
Our youth are human. They deserve safety, they deserve to be able to live in a place of their choosing where they feel safe. They deserve people around them in their community that are willing to work to help get them there. OSYS does some of that work, that’s great but we’re five people, they deserve 500 people around them.
I love my job so much it’s one of the best jobs in the world, but I also hope one day I never have to do it. I hope people know that these are not poor little kids, these are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
In Alberta it is not illegal to leave home before the age of 18, however, if the youth is apprehended by the police someone will be contacted to take responsibility for the youth. This could be a parent, family member, guardian, or potentially children’s services. Should an agreement with Alberta Children Services be made, the government is then responsible for the ‘parental role.’ Youth may receive help from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta if they are provided services under the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act (PSECA) or Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act. (1) Caseworkers like those at OSYS can help youth navigate these resources.
Note: This is an excerpt from our September 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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- Legal Resource Centre of Alberta. (2017). Youth FAQs – Family. Centre for Public Legal Information Alberta. https://www.law-faqs.org/alberta-faqs/youth-and-the-law-in-alberta/how-old-do-i-have-to-be/youth-faqs-family/