Calgary comes together to help homeless youth
Around this time of year, the malls become crowded with parents and their kids scrambling to purchase the latest trends in warm winter wear.
But for hundreds of Calgary's at-risk and street-connected youth, a simple winter coat and some boots to keep them warm is something they could only dream of.
That's something the Gear Up for Winter program is trying to change, at a time when youth homelessness in the city appears to be on the rise.
Gear Up for Winter assists youths who may be homeless or at risk by supplying them with winter necessities, as well as raising awareness about their plight.
Danene Lenstra, who has been helping to organize the Gear Up for Winter program since its inception in 2004, says it's important for vulnerable youth to take advantage of the event, which will be held at the University of Calgary's downtown campus on Nov. 8.
Lenstra says many of them don't yet see themselves as a homeless person.
Instead, Lenstra – who runs The Alex Youth Health Centre – says most of the youths who come into her workplace identify a homeless person as "that person pushing a shopping cart down the alley."
By comparison, "if you go to the Mustard Seed and you ask an 40-year-old person there what homelessness is, they will identify themselves as homeless.
"To me that means that there is this window where they have yet to accept that this is where they're at. There is a window where you have an opportunity to help them."
An event such as Gear Up for Winter can provide that opportunity, connecting youths to sponsoring agencies such as The Alex, the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary, McMan Youth, Family and Community Services Association and the Calgary John Howard Society.
This year, Gear Up for Winter also comes in the wake of a study by the Calgary Homeless Foundation showing the number of youths and young adults experiencing homeless is on the rise.
Between January and August 2012, that number went from 276 (or nine per cent of homeless population) to 445 or (12 percent.)
Calgary clothing stores: Blame Betty and Dick&Jane have been helping those youth by helping Gear Up for Winter for the past few years.
In an email interview with the Calgary Journal, Dick&Jane manager Megan Erickson – stated the stores are currently accepting donations from Calgarians at their 17th Avenue locations.
Erickson says they are looking for everything from winter coats to socks to baby formula.
"Being located on 17th, we see homeless youth everyday, many of which we have gotten to know and the sad fact is that there simply are not enough beds available for all of the homeless youth in this city," says Erickson, noting that
"it's upsetting to see so many new faces each year."
Kim Wirth, manager of prevention and outreach with the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary and co-chair of the youth sector of the Calgary Action Committee on Housing and Homelessness, points out that there are misunderstandings in the public about youth homelessness specifically.
"I think it's particularly concerning when young people are homeless because they are more vulnerable for violence and addiction," says Wirth. "I think one of the misconceptions is that people think that young people leave home because they don't want to follow the rules at their home, but in reality a lot of young people are leaving home due to domestic violence."
Lenstra and Wirth both say that the public can help solve the youth homeless problem by donating and volunteering for Gear Up for Winter. But they also say it's just as important that the public takes the time to become aware of the issue of youth homelessness in our city.
- By Allison Drinnan