House becomes a home for homeless under 17
Jen – who asked that her last name be withheld to avoid stigma – says she was 15 years old when she started living on the street to escape the sexual and physical violence she suffered at home.
"I had tried to move out of my house quite a few times before that," says Jen. "I grew up in an abusive home and I didn't have any sort of positive role models. I wasn't close to anybody in my family and I didn't have very many friends."
Jen remembers sleeping on the couches of people she knew before becoming completely homeless, where day-to-day struggles for food and shelter led her to deal drugs to survive.
"I ended up getting into a bad circle of friends," says Jen. "I would sit downtown and think about what to do, or try to get a job. But you can't get a job if you don't have a way for people to call you, and people can't call you if you don't have a house. You just can't get your foot in the door."
According to Ronni Abraham, senior director of programs at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, this is not an uncommon story — after all, there are enough homeless youth living in Calgary to populate a high school.
"People are shocked when we tell them there are 2,000 kids under the age of 24 on the streets," says Abraham. "They can't believe it's true. It's tremendously heartbreaking for a city to have a problem affecting so many of our young people."
Jen eventually found herself at Avenue 15 – a shelter run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary that provides, according to its website, "basic needs" for homeless youth between the ages of 12 and 17. Three different programs operate within the Avenue 15 model to provide youth with beds, hot meals, showers, transitional housing and support.
"They gave me that opportunity to get my life back on track and to get some financial assistance; just life skills," says Jen. "The shelters give you the support you need to live independently."
This is exactly the goal of the programs, which Abraham says are rooted in providing a stable living situation for youths without a home.
"Our model at the Boys and Girls Club is based on what happens in regular families and regular communities; we build our services on that," says Abraham. "Good connections, positive recreation, a safety net, a supporting environment, a stable home life, housing you can count on — all of those things are the building blocks for healthy development in typical kids and that's how we try to model our services."
With the number of homeless youth in Calgary so great, Abraham says they struggle to make their budget each year. But even people donating time to teach a few basic skills, she says, is greatly felt and appreciated by the shelter.
"All youth-serving agencies need some helping hands," says Abraham. "How to do a budget, how to bake a cake, how to change the oil in a car — whatever it is that you would teach your young person, we are hungry to teach our kids."
Today Jen is 21, and living independently while going to school; she says she wants to become a youth worker. And while she admits her adolescence wasn't ideal, she is quick to acknowledging the role it played in getting her where she is now.
"I don't regret anything in my past," she says. "I'm definitely not happy about it, but I love myself. I love the person I've become. I plan on supporting kids who went through the same thing I did. And I wouldn't have the passion that I do now if it wasn't for what I've gone through."
- By HANNAH KOST