How to help:
It’s the giving season, and as we roll out our series on Abbotsford’s homeless population, many people may be wondering: How can I help?
This is Part Five of Finding A Way Home – tales of love, connection and relationships on the streets.
For most youths experiencing homelessness, it’s the systems that are – on their surface – intended to protect them that can play a major role in their descent to the streets.
That’s little surprise to three young people who spoke with The News about their experience with the system – one they avoid referring to as “foster care.”
“The reason why I don’t call it foster care – I call it foster system – is because I felt like when you’re in the system they care so (much) less for you, like a mother or parent should. If you’re there to care for other kids, you should treat them like their parents (would),” says Terísa, who asked for her real name not to be published.
They said the problems with the system leave many without the skills to care for themselves after they age out. But once they age out – for most, the supports are abruptly severed – the carpet is often pulled out from under them.
“Usually it’s youth that have aged out of the system that are ending up homeless,” Jenni Johnson says. “When you turn 19, basically, you lose all of your support. It doesn’t matter if you’re not ready. It doesn’t matter if you have supports or not. You’re done.”
Johnson says she was fortunate to have stronger supports before she aged out, saying she was a “best-case scenario” with the foster system.
“I was not fully equipped, but a little bit more equipped. So when I aged out of care, I had already found my own apartment,” Johnson says. “So I didn’t age out into homelessness. But I lost all my other supports, like therapist, social worker, financial supports. So I was completely on my own, but at least I had found myself a place to live.”
But how they turn out depends on so many variables – who the social worker is, who the youth worker is, who the foster parents are and whether one is eligible for further supports after he or she ages out.
“Different people experience different homes differently. You and I could both be placed in the same home, but I could have a completely different experience from you,” Johnson says.
“My worker was great. I had a youth worker, and … she ensured that I had a place to live before I aged out of care, and together we found that home, and I still live there today, two years later.”
Jordie Lynn, a FLOHcilitator with the FLOH (Foster System, Life Promotion, Opioid Dialogue, Harm Reduction/Homelessness) program, says her social worker often wouldn’t let her do things like searching for a house without the worker coming with her.
While having to wait for the social worker to make time for that, Lynn did note that having a social worker or youth worker can make the process easier.
“They can kind of vouch that this youth is living on their own, is still responsible and that kind of stuff, instead of this youth ran away,” Lynn says. “If you’re partying, they don’t want to give you a house. And a lot of youth who are 18, 19, that’s what they do. So a lot of landlords will say no just because of your age.”
But with heavy workloads, the youths say it’s challenging for many social workers and youth workers to be that active in helping those in their care.
There are some programs that can help mitigate homelessness for those aged out of the foster system. Lynn noted that she was in an independent living program, which did teach her some basic life skills like paying bills.
As well, some youths with developmental or learning challenges who can show that they are not prepared to take care of themselves are eligible for extended supports.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development has the Agreements with Young Adults program, which comes with its own restrictions.
“If you’re homeless, you’re obviously probably not going to university, because your first priority is finding a house, getting a meal to eat,” Johnson says.
“They give you $1,250 per month if you meet these very specific requirements and that you’re going to school full-time, or if you have a life skills plan. So, again, homeless people can’t access that money to get themselves out of the homelessness trap.”
Johnson adds that income assistance or a disability pension does not offer a way off the streets, when rents are nearly $1,000 per month and you’re housing stipend is only a few hundred dollars.
“It’s kind of like a cycle. It’s like a trap; it’s like they don’t want you to be successful,” Johnson says.
“They check your accounts, and if you have, say, $5,000 saved in your account from when you were working, they want you to spend all of that before they give you any support.”
Lynn says she wants to save for a driver’s licence so she can get a community support worker certificate, for which she has finished all of her requirements.
“But I don’t drive, so I can’t actually get it,” Lynn says. “And I can’t save up to get it, because then I get no help at all.”
It starts within the system
The troubles ultimately start within the system, which the three youths agree can foster mental health issues and leave youths mentally ill-prepared for life on their own – something for which there’s little to no help once one ages out of the system.
That can come from experiences of isolation and loneliness while in the system, and that largely comes from the instability in their lives.
“I’ve been to maybe 20 different foster homes. I went through maybe 15 different social workers and youth workers or more,” Terísa says. “They kept moving me and moving me. … I felt alone most the time. I felt like crying in my bed most of the time, because there was nobody beside me.”
It’s not uncommon for those in the system to be moved around many times in a short period – Lynn says she was moved several times by the time she was just four years old, more than once a year at an age in which stability is important for development.
Sometimes a strong relationship can be formed between the foster parents and the foster youth – Lynn says her brother was able to stay with his foster parents after he aged out of the system. But that can lead to further issues if they are suddenly moved from that home, often for reasons that don’t make sense to the youth.
Feeling unstable or isolated in one’s life from constantly moving or feeling neglected can be exacerbated, too, through experiences with the criminal justice system. Terísa says police were often called to her foster home, and it wasn’t common for authorities to take the side of the youth.
“It didn’t help anything. It just made more aggression, and I was just more angry. Anger came out more,” Terísa says.
“A lot of youth ended up going to jail and stuff … Their foster parents, that’s what they were taught to do: Just call the cops on them if they did something wrong or something goes wrong. Just call the cops; don’t try to resolve the problem.”
Terísa says being in the foster system left her ill-prepared for life on her own in practical ways, too – her foster parents didn’t register her for school, and now, in her late 20s, she’s struggling to afford paying for classes.
“I wish I would have done that when I was at that age,” Terísa says.
“Teach them life skills, like getting food ready, getting cooking. How do you do that? How do you clean your clothes? Some kids still, to this day, don’t know even know how to do it, because their (foster) parents dumped on them since they were little babies.”