Last week in Ottawa, 650 people slept out to raise money to support a local agency’s efforts to help homeless youth. The agency was Youth Services Bureau and, with their shelter system and other support services, they have the most robust assistance for homeless youth in Ottawa.
Youth Services Bureau’s Sleep Out event does more than raise money. It also raises awareness about homelessness and gives everyone an appreciation of what it’s like to have to worry about shelter, a safe place to live out of the cold and wet. An event like Sleep Out helps us to understand what it’s like to have safe, secure housing. Even if you don’t have food, to be safe from the elements and other risks is something. But can you even believe that just being hungry could be better than being hungry and homeless? Can you even believe that it’s necessary to consider this?
In addition to shelters themselves, relatively recent research has revealed that there is one other support that can benefit homeless youth and that is drop-in centres. The research was conducted in Ohio by Natasha Slesnick, who has been working with homeless youth in Columbus, Ohio since the 1990’s.
One of the things that those of us who work with youth know is that the reason many youth take to the streets themselves is that they are hiding, from abusive families and often an abusive foster care or group home setting. Because of this, and because shelters might be the first place the authorities would look for a missing youth, many homeless youth will may try to protect their anonymity. Slesnick’s drop-in centres offer food, a safe place to hang out, medical care, showers and supplies like socks and underwear. The shelters that Slesnick says are required are open around the clock and, given their nature, they provide support to the most marginalized youth. In my community, Youth Services Bureau does have a drop-in, but it cannot be open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. It is open only 6 hours per day and, while this is likely better than nothing, one wonders what difference it would make if the drop in could be open 24 hours per day.
I am interested in Slesnick’s important work because I believe that our interventions on behalf of youth must be evidence-based and efficient. While many communities have shelters for youth, drop-in centres that are open every day, around the clock are not common, despite their proven efficacy.
As you think about youth who are homeless, I suspect you have an image of indigent drop-outs, but let me challenge this perception with one more reality. In many large Canadian and American cities, housing is very expensive, so expensive that even young people with reasonable jobs cannot find safe, comfortable housing. Some students or workers in the “gig economy” opt for lifestyles of couchsurfing or living in their cars so that they can afford to go to school, or have some space that feels safe – that they never have to share. These youth also benefit from the kind of drop-in I am describing, because the nonjudgmental support they receive can help them manage until they can afford a better alternative. Listen to this young woman’s story and ask yourself,” Do you know anyone like her?”
For all kinds of youth, with all kinds of problems, wouldn’t 24 hour, 7 day a week drop-ins make all kinds of sense?