As a teenager, Omyma Kafi would often sleep outside when her parents kicked her out of the house. Scared and alone, she would wait for them to hopefully let her back in.
It wasn’t until she was 18 that she actually became homeless, unable to handle the trauma at home any longer.
“Things just became too much for me,” the timid 22-year-old said. “I just couldn’t be there. I have a lot of past trauma, dealing with growing up in the environment I was in. For a long time I was too afraid to seek help.”
After a few months of homelessness, Kafi met a police officer who took her to a safe house and she was connected with Options Community Services Society.
It changed her life.
Kafi joined the Options’ Supported Youth Independent Housing (SYIH) program, where she received rental subsidies to help get her on her feet.
Living independently, away from the abuse she suffered throughout her childhood, is something she never dreamed possible. She now sees a bright future for herself, but still faces a variety of struggles.
Financially supporting herself is probably her toughest challenge, she said.
“It’s really scary but I’m definitely working on trying to be completely independent without the help of Options.”
Kafi said she still deals with a slew of mental health issues stemming from her childhood, including PTSD, anxiety and depression as well as hallucinations. But she said she’s determined to overcome those challenges.
Today, she attends Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where she’s taking English classes and aspires to be a writer.
Through writing, she hopes to shed light on issues of homelessness youth face.
“My future now seems a bit more clear and a bit more positive,” said Kafi. “I did become scared, often, but I think it’s a lot better now. I am a lot happier now.”
From June 2011 to December 2013, 17 youth participated in Options’ SYIH program.
Funded by the Vancouver Foundation, BC Housing and Coast Capital Savings, the program provides a rent subsidy as well as intensive one-on-one support for youth aged 19 to 24 for a period of generally one year.
Roughly 80 per cent of the youth they encountered also had mental health issues, said Heather Lynch, youth services manager for Options.
Lynch said homelessness looks quite different when you consider youth, describing them as the “hidden homeless.”
“Some of the youth don’t even realize they’re homeless,” she said. “You ask them if they have a home and they say yes, then their explanation is they’re staying at a friend’s home.”
A big contributing factor to the problem is that many kids are aging out of the foster system at 19 with none to few supports in place. There’s a big gap in support for youth aged 19 to 24, she said.
“There seems to be an increase of anxiety for them around their 19th birthday. Some are sabotaging themselves and are having difficulty with the transitioning piece,” Lynch explained.
With a large youth population that continues to grow in Surrey, Lynch said the issue in Surrey is significant.
The problem here in Surrey is support, she explained, and they’ve found many youth travel to Vancouver to access support and shelters.
For many, that yields the sad outcome of becoming street entrenched there.
“The huge thing (in Surrey) is the funding. We’re moving forward there in being comparable to Vancouver but we still have a ways to go to have appropriate funding in Surrey for youth transitioning services,” said Lynch.
But there are success stories.
Options evaluated 14 of the 17 youth who had been through the program in the first two-and-a-half years (three left the program).
All 14 youth found a place to live. Eight of them graduated from high school during their year in the program, one attended post-secondary and nine found jobs.
Lynch said it’s amazing what can achieved when support, both financial and emotional, is available. And Kafi, she said, is a shining example.
“She’s our superstar.”