Teesha Sharma (left) is helping homeless teens.

Along the Fraser: Feeling the support of others

'These kids can’t access our food bank or shelters because of age restrictions.'

I can’t stand knowing there are kids out there as alone as I was, thinking they’re worthless, wanting nothing more than not being on earth any more – Teesha Sharma, mental health worker.

 

There are kids 13 to 18 – some in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows – who came to a tragic conclusion one day. Without knowing where they’d end up, they decided life on the street was better than another day of physical and mental abuse at home.

These kids can’t access our food bank or shelters because of age restrictions. They don’t attend school, haven’t learned work, or social skills, couch surf or sleep in bushes, and live with mental illnesses, such as post traumatic stress disorder, because they don’t know how to navigate the normal avenues for counselling.

Head counts will miss some – if not most – of these kids.

“They hide from adults,” says Sharma, a street kid herself once, “because they’ve learned to mistrust them.”

Christian Cowley manages the CEED Centre, where Sharma has an office. They’ve collaborated to put names to some of these invisible children through contacts with School District No. 42 and students they’ve met on community projects. One day, they made plans to find others, and bring them all back into our community.

“I asked outreach workers who encountered any to pass on my business card and say they could get things they needed at the CEED Centre where I work,” says Sharma. “We need to build trust first. Then Christian and I want to employ them to ride electric cargo bikes fitted with carriers. They’ll collect compost from restaurants. Kids will do three two-hour paid shifts a week.”

Progress has been slow. Initially, says Sharma, “two girls came to get personal hygiene kits and fresh clothes. They passed the word. So far, we’ve identified 16 boys and girls. We feed them and ask what else they need. They’re hungry and don’t have places to sleep, either.”

Not long ago, homeless youth could stay at the Iron Horse Safe House. Sharma did.

“You went to bed knowing the person who woke you up cared. You knew who was meeting you after school, making dinner. It was a surrogate family. You could only stay 30 days, but staff made a discharge plan for you; helped you find a place to live. We need three safe houses with indefinite stay times.”

But, senior government doesn’t think so. Housing for youth at the Iron Horse ended in January 2015. Now, says Sharma, local kids migrate to Vancouver’s east side.

“They can stay in some shelters for seven days there, but they’re on the street from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., preyed on by drug dealers and pimps.”

Sharma often gets phone calls at 4 a.m. – a girl disturbed by an encounter with a client or her pimp, or a desperate boy shivering under a bridge. It’s better, she explains, if you get a youth agreement with the Ministry of Children and Families. You’re lucky if you do.

“When I finally got one at 16, MCFD paid the month’s rent, with $40 left for food. My worker said, ‘buy pancake mix. Just add water.’”

Homeless kids will soon become adults lined up at food banks, shelters, hospitals, more work for paramedics and firefighters already overwhelmed by drug overdoses. In many U.S. cities, according USA Today, 40 per cent of calls to police involve the mentally ill. We can’t be far off that.

We don’t need more head counts. Senior governments have to fund housing for youth again.

The ministry promises to help them learn life skills, prepare meals, cope with addiction, get an education.

American writer Margaret Wheatley: “As long as we feel the support of others, we persevere.”

Cowley added: “These are our kids. We need to help them.”

 

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

 

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