For everyone who has experienced homelessness there is a different – and often difficult – story of how they reached such a desperate situation. We thank the following individuals for having the courage to share their personal stories so that we can all learn from them.
Jason*: shattered dreams almost led to self-destruction
I was homeless at 21, and bought my first house at 25.
That’s how Jason, a former street kid, describes his personal journey. Raised in a middle-class Calgary family, he grew up with a passion for hockey, spending countless hours on the ice and dreaming of a future in the big leagues.
A serious injury put an end to his dreams. Frustrated and depressed, he dropped out of school, left home and turned to drugs. He lived in shelters in Vancouver and Calgary and he began mixing with petty criminals. He knows now that he was on a fast path to self-destruction.
Then Jason heard about The Doorway (formerly The Back Door) an organization that supports young people in their transition from the street to mainstream living. He realized that here were the supports that he needed to turn his life around. “It was time to start putting in the effort,” he says. And he did.
Today, Jason is head chef at a bar and restaurant in Calgary. He has a home, wife and daughter, and has reconciled with his parents. And while many survivors prefer not to talk about their past lives, he is happy to give back in any way he can to the community which has helped him. “To have gone through all those experiences and not be able to use them to help others would be a waste,” he says. And it’s very clear that Jason is not about to waste any more of his life.
*not his real name
Nadine*: from struggling past to bright, secure future
A single parent living on the outskirts of Vancouver, Nadine’s transient, poorly paid jobs made it hard to make ends meet and to provide for her three-and five-year old daughters.
She worried constantly that they would lose their home.
A friend suggested that Nadine check out BladeRunners, a program run by the ACCESS organization – a Raising the Roof partner agency. BladeRunners supports young people in difficult situations to develop their skills and employment opportunities through a structured training program.
With BladeRunners’ help, Nadine completed her WCB First Aid Level 3 certification and her Certified Safety Officer training (with a mark of 98%!). Today, she is the Site Safety Officer for Bastion Development Corporation at its UBC Chorus site. She has a bright, secure future and her young family has safe, affordable housing.
Nadine’s experience has made her strong. She serves as a wonderful role model for others who are facing the barriers she has overcome. “Like them, I was not in a very good position,” she says. But she is living proof that, with personal determination and the right support, it is possible to turn one’s life around.
*not her real name
Katie*: school drop-out headed for college
Katie’s childhood brings back distressing memories of a mother-daughter relationship that slide steadily into a sad, destructive cycle of anger, frustration and blaming. At just 12 years of age, Katie was so desperate to get away from home that she pleaded to be placed in foster care.
Hope turned to disillusionment as Katie moved in and out of a succession of foster homes and detention centres. At 16, she abandoned school, was living on the streets and had turned to drugs. Scared, cold and often hungry, she didn’t know where to turn for help.
The turning point for Katie came when she got involved with Choices for Youth, a community-based agency in St. John’s (NL). Choices provides young people with stable support systems during difficult periods in their lives. Katie signed up for a basic math and literacy skills program administered by Choices and run by the Community Youth Network.
Katie hadn’t been in school for longer than a few months at a time since she was 12. It took a couple of attempts and a whole year before she was ready to commit to the program, but eventually she decided to get on with making some changes in her life.
Today, Katie is a confident, well-spoken young woman. She works at a local community centre and is preparing to take a high school equivalency program before pursuing a college diploma in Community Recreation and Leadership.
*not her real name
David*: guidance, support and “strong will” helped him succeed
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could cope with the challenges that David has faced in his short life. Born in Moncton, New Brunswick, he was just ten years old when his mother died. His father, an alcoholic, died just eight years later. His three siblings had already left home and were involved in the drug culture. Epilepsy and learning disabilities further complicated David’s life. At 18, he felt alone and vulnerable.
Then a friend told David about the Transitional Housing Program operated by Moncton Youth Residences. A Raising the Roof partner agency, Moncton Youth Residences Inc., offers guidance and support to young people like David, who need help to make positive choices and gain more control over their future.
During the year he lived there, David learned important life skills, began to take responsibility for his health and education and developed friendships. “One of my proudest moments was graduating high school,” he says. He also gained the confidence to attend community college for a year, graduating with carpentry skills.
Today, David lives in his own place and works at a movie theatre. His epilepsy is under control and he keeps fit by biking and walking to work. He’s exploring wood working possibilities for the future, but right now he is happy that he has come so far. “I’m strong willed and a positive thinker,” he says and then pauses. “My mom was like that.”
I’m strong willed and a positive thinker...My mom was like that.
*not his real name
Craig*: counselling, mentorship kept him from being “lost on the streets”
He still remembers the loud, frightening fights between his mom and dad. When his dad left for good, his mom tried to raise Craig on her own, but her alcohol dependency worsened and she couldn’t manage. Over the next six years, Craig was shuffled between twelve different foster homes.
During those difficult years one thing helped Craig cope with the stress and uncertainty of his young life: every summer he spent several carefree weeks at the Camp Chapleau in Montreal. The Camp is run by the Old Brewery Mission, a Raising the Roof partner agency. The camp focuses on mentoring at-risk kids like Craig, who lack a stable family and home environment. “My camp counsellor became both the big brother I never had and the dad I always wanted,” recalls Craig.
Today Craig helps to run a group home for children and is studying Early Childhood Education. Without the supports he received, he believes that he would have been lost on the streets.
*not his real name
Emily: “we panhandled to survive...”
Emily was 17 when she and her younger sister were banished from their family home in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “That first night was so cold. I still remember the bitter chill,” she says.
With little food, the two panhandled to survive, watching in desperation as people looked at them coldly and walked on “as if we were invisible…non-existent.” For a month Emily, her sibling and their cat slept in alleys, doorways and on rooftops. Finally, the Community Youth Network, a local community youth support group, helped them to get off the street.
Emily is now 21. She has a stable home, has returned to school to further her education and employment opportunities – and she is the proud mother of a bright, healthy little boy.
Her experience has opened her eyes to the growing problem of homelessness and the circumstances that drive so many youth to the streets. She willingly shares her story to help others understand that youth don’t usually choose to live on the streets. “Sometimes there are deciding factors that are out of your control.” She’s hopeful that “Together, maybe we can put a stop to it.”