• Dagma Koyi

Part 4 of 4: A story of hope as two young men find their way home

In the final part of this 4-part series on youth homeslessness and mental health, we highlight the stories of two young individuals in R.E.S.T’s programs who have new found hope in what lies ahead.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Even in a country as progressive as Canada, youth homelessness continues to be a growing concern. In Toronto alone, 1,500–2,000 youth are homeless each night. While this is alarming on its own, it does not even include the vast number of young people experiencing hidden homelessness, which most typically looks like “couch surfing” in friends’ homes. This widespread issue has only been further aggravated by COVID-19 in various ways.

Social distancing measures have decreased the capacity of existing homeless shelters. More youth are feeling isolated and lonely. Mental health is further deteriorating – 85% and 75% of homeless youth have reported an increase in anxiety and depression, respectively. Youth unemployment reached a record high of 32.6% in the Region of Peel. Clearly, homeless or at-risk youth need more support now than ever. In fact, the need for R.E.S.T’s programs has skyrocketed; in the past month, we saw nearly a 40% jump in the number of youth reaching out for help with securing housing. Here are the stories of Brandon and Steven – two young people enrolled in our programs.

Brandon was a young individual who like most youth, was attending school and working. It was after he suffered a serious car accident that fractured his spine when times became difficult. Things began going downhill financially, and he could no longer afford paying rent. With no support from his family, at 21 years old, Brandon found himself homeless.

What followed was a very dark and traumatic phase in his life where he was moving between homeless shelters, feeling his lowest. Brandon describes this as the worst experience he’s ever had. He had no support system and felt completely alone. “People didn’t seem to care. They didn’t treat you with respect. You feel like you can’t do anything about it, and it mentally breaks you”, he says. At the homeless shelters, there were many issues that Brandon wasn’t exposed to before that he had to see. Some of these issues included drugs and prostitution. He mentions that “there were lots of ways to fall and get trapped there [at the homeless shelter], and I had to keep myself strong.”

After spending his 22nd birthday in the shelter, Brandon felt like he had no place to go. He reached out to R.E.S.T in September when someone in the homeless shelter recommended it to him. R.E.S.T Centres helped Brandon to find housing, but also offered much more than just that. We have been supporting him financially by subsidizing his rent and providing bi-weekly grocery gift cards. As well, we have been helping him get back into school and secure employment. Currently, Brandon is exploring and deciding on a career path that makes him happy. When talking about the support he’s received from R.E.S.T, Brandon says, “Lots of people from R.E.S.T reached out and showed genuine care, something I didn’t get from the shelter. One particular person, Jacqui Henry [case worker at R.E.S.T], took me under her wing and has had my back since. I’m still dealing with other issues, but Jacqui gives lots of personal help”.

Coming from a secure family setting, to Jacqui, it is very important that she uses her experience and knowledge to help others and make their lives easier. “Alleviating some of the disadvantages [that at-risk, and homeless youth are dealing with] gives me purpose and happiness”, Jacqui says. Jacqui has definitely seen Brandon, and many other youth grow over the past few months with R.E.S.T. “When I first interview them [youth], they don’t know me or R.E.S.T. Many have had negative experiences in the past, which has shaped how they perceive people and organizations. So from day 1, I try to win their trust. I try to let them know that I genuinely want them to succeed and want them to live their best life. Over time, youth show more trust and confidence in the program, and feel more support.” So be it in terms of helping to create a resume, search for employment, or just being a listening ear - Jacqui has provided Brandon, and several other youth with consistent mentorship and guidance.

Brandon wants people to know that homelessness could happen to anyone. He adds, “it’s not just a physical thing, it affects you emotionally and mentally too. If you’re not resilient, it could break you”. To this date, remembering his time as a homeless youth feels traumatizing. Brandon’s experience with R.E.S.T helped him look at people in a different light. While he was homeless, he was very negative; now, he has hope that people will come around. He is thankful to R.E.S.T for setting him on a path towards a better future. “R.E.S.T helps you a lot and is very consistent. They genuinely care. People from the program became like family to me… they helped me believe in myself.”

The resilience and strength Brandon has shown is nothing short of inspiring. His story highlights just how important it is to provide young people with support and care in their fight against homelessness. At the same time, it also shows the need for preventative programs, so young people don’t have to see the darkest parts of humanity like severe drug addiction and coerced prostitution. The impact of being homeless on the physical health, mental health and safety of youth is devastating. Therefore, for youth who are at-risk, we must help them before they reach the brink of homelessness. R.E.S.T’s proactive response has helped protect many youth from potentially having a lived traumatic experience of being homeless.

One such individual in our programs would like to keep his identity anonymous for personal reasons. So, we will refer to him as “Steven” to tell his story. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of our youth struggle with associating their name to their stories because of public shaming for their undesirable circumstance, and stigmatized responses from people in their community. There are many people who live among us who are secretly suffering from financial stress associated with having no parents and being wards of the state. They don’t do this because they don’t want help, they do this because they’re afraid of the way people will look at them when they know of their situation. We hope that you appreciate the bravery it takes our youth to share their name, to share their face with you to tell their story and reveal their struggle publicly.

Steven was an at-risk youth who previously had two encounters with the Children’s Aid Society and had been under their care. After the subsequent transfer of his care to his grandmother, he had been searching for resources to help support the two of them, especially as his grandmother doesn’t work. Steven discovered R.E.S.T Centres on the recommendation of his guidance counselor and has been receiving assistance from the non-profit ever since.

Financially, R.E.S.T has helped him tremendously by providing monthly rent subsidies, bi-weekly grocery gift cards and money to purchase a new pair of glasses. Additionally, with the help of donations, Jacqui was able to provide workout equipment for Steven, who is an athlete. Beyond the financial aid, Steven has also been receiving continuous emotional support and counselling. On a bi-weekly basis, R.E.S.T organizes Zoom meetings to check up on him, as well as update him on new opportunities. Especially with COVID-19 making him feel isolated and lonely, Steven finds these sessions very uplifting. Steven truly appreciates that the people at R.E.S.T help him with so much more than just the basic needs. They help empower him for a sustainable and independent future.

Jacqui believes that Brandon and Steven, as a result of their experience with R.E.S.T and herself, will be able to access their best life. “I want them to realize their full potential, and I feel like they have a much better chance of achieving their full potential now than if we hadn’t engaged with them”, she adds. So just how R.E.S.T has supported and empowered Brandon and Steven, we hope to do the same for many more youth to ultimately help eradicate youth homelessness. In fact, various new and exciting initiatives are underway for the year 2021! We will be starting by celebrating Black History Month in February and providing additional support to youth by offering a variety of workshops to give cooking lessons, and discuss racialization. Here are some of the upcoming workshops:

Name of workshop: What Makes Me Black African

Time of workshop: 7pm

Date of workshop: Feb 4th 2021

Host of workshop: Phil Edwards- CEO and Seneca Professor in the Social Services Program

Information: An interactive Zoom discussion with Professor Phil Edwards about Black African Identity

Name of Workshop: Caribbean Cooking Class

Time of workshop: 7pm

Date of workshop: Feb 11th 2021

Host of workshop: Chef Tania

Name of workshop: Racial Trauma: Why do my parents act the way they do?

Time of workshop: 7pm

Date of workshop: Feb 18th 2021

Host of workshop: Charmaine Lane, BA, M.SC., RP- Registered Psychotherapist

Information: Discussion about Racial Trauma and how it affects behaviour today

Name: The Art of African Cooking

Time of Workshop: 7pm

Date of Workshop: February 25th 2021

Host of Workshop: Chef Nureen Haji

Information: This African cooking class will be using ingredients found in any kitchen.

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