KINGS COUNTY, NS - An estimated 70 youth find themselves homeless on any given night of the year in Kings County, yet there is no local youth-specific emergency shelter to house them.
Russ Sanche is the director of The Portal, a youth outreach centre in Kentville, and has worked with youth in distress in global and local contexts.
He says a formal shelter may not be the solution that works for Kings County, but rather a network of supportive housing, where youth have the option of staying for more than a night.
“Seldom do we meet a youth who’s on their first experience with homelessness. This could really help with that,” he says.
Invisible kind of homelessness
Sanche says there are still many people in Kings County who don’t believe homelessness exists, and don’t realize youth are among the most affected.
“The youth are right here, and we have to change these people’s understanding of how to treat the problem,” he says.
“People are quick to blame bad behaviour, but this is only the truth in five per cent of cases.”
Sixty-three per cent of youth from 16 to 21 years old are at risk of housing insecurity, according to the March 2018 Precarious Housing and Homelessness report prepared by stakeholders in Kings, West Hants, Annapolis, Digby, Yarmouth, Shelburne counties.
The report states youth without stable housing are found in places like parks, hospitals, jail and treatment facilities, shunning shelters because of a process requiring them to file a report with the police – something most would rather avoid.
Sanche estimates 80 to 90 per cent of youths avoid shelters, like Inn from the Cold, due to this reporting process, and end up couch surfing with friends instead – something he says can lead to precarious situations.
“This is why numbers on homelessness are very hard to track. The number is very likely higher than 70 youth on any given night finding themselves without a home,” he says.
Youth-specific shelter not the only solution
While Sanche says the lack of a youth-specific shelter in the Annapolis Valley is problematic, he points to other solutions that currently exist.
Flo Denney, the In-House Children’s Coordinator at the Chrysalis House, says the women and children’s shelter often helps fill this void and that numerous female youth have accessed the shelter’s services.
“We’ve certainly had youth who are experiencing abuse stay at the shelter, and we support them as they’re going through that. For us, it’s typically young moms who are alone at that age,” she says.
She said supportive, safe spaces would be key for youth in distress, who sometimes just want a meal and conversation.
“I think this is lacking. Some spaces exist, but none just devoted to this,” she says.
Sanche also wants a shelter solution focusing on creating safe spaces and suggests host homes as an alternative, which operates inside homes of screened individuals who provide last minute, emergency support, in a foster-like environment for up to two weeks.
“We’ve housed about 70 youth this way over past few years. Host homes are the easiest way to get youth into a safe, supervised environment, and we’ve got everything to gain from recruiting more of them,” says Sanche.
An alternative approach
Now that the province’s Department of Community Services has signed on to provide support to these homes, the project is on its way to becoming the area’s main temporary housing solution.
Sanche has also informally approached Acadia University on getting interested students screened to become hosts, which could offer an even less intimidating solution for youth.
“Suppose you’re a student just a few years older than the youth. That’s not such a scary option, and could provide a great peer experience,” says Sanche, who also aims to develop a protocol for emergency responses to youth homelessness.
He points to New Brunswick, which utilizes an approach called 'Integrated Service Delivery' that coordinates services to help youth navigate what’s available to them.
He sees a similar approach in Nova Scotia as an effective tool that could lead to eliminating the problem once and for all.
“I think the resources exist, but it’s taking too long. If you have to wait for things, you lose the window to effectively help these kids,” he says.
“This is a big, bureaucratic problem, but community services is willing to do things differently, and is listening. We’re on our way to fixing this,” he says.