Hundreds of volunteers hit Metro Vancouver streets in 2017, as they do every three years, to determine just how many people are homeless in our communities.
But today, April 4, a new count is kicking off in the region for the first time, and it’s entirely focused on youth.
Instead of volunteers hitting the streets for a 24-hour snapshot, youth-focused organizations will help lead the charge in a nine-day effort to paint a more accurate and complete picture of how many young people are homeless across the region.
Youth will be counted in partnership with service groups, schools, shelters and government agencies from April 4-12, with the results expected this summer.
“I hope that the different methodology, done over a week, will provide opportunity to catch kids that aren’t necessarily predictable,” said Tyler J. Lee, who is supervisor of Youth Housing Services for Surrey’s Pacific Community Resources Society, which is one of many groups participating in the count.
“We’ve got youth who we know are homeless but happen to not be there on the day of the count but will stop in for a visit and check in with someone they feel safe with sometime during that week,” he added. “By capturing those numbers, it will mean a genuine representation out there hope to advocate for more services to come to Surrey to get these kids the support they need.”
In addition to working with school counsellors to find youth there and counting young people who interact with youth-focused programs, Lee explained a social media campaign is also being launched during the count.
“Youth may not have a cell phone, but they’ll be on Facebook,” he said.
PCRS’ housing search program alone helps more than 100 youth per year, said Lee, and those numbers have continuously risen.
“It’s consistently been, ‘do more, with less,’” he said of PCRS’ programs. “The numbers continue to increase in the housing search program.”
Youth were the only demographic to see a decrease in the 2017 Homeless Count in Metro Vancouver, which happens every three years.
A total of identified 3,605 homeless people were counted in the region last year, and of those, 16 per cent (386) were youth under 25 years old (64 from Surrey alone). That was actually a decrease from the last count in 2014, when youth made up 20 per cent of the counted homeless population.
But, frontline workers widely believe youth are underrepresented in the regional survey due to the challenge in finding them in a 24-hour period, and that many are “hidden homeless.”
“Sometimes you won’t even know,” said Lee of a homeless youth’s appearance. “You’ll see a youth that has fresh looking clothes but really they’ve been couch surfing and they are homeless, they just hide it really really well. Those are the ones we want to help. Let’s find you a place to live first — how can you be expected to go to school if you’re sleeping on a couch or a park bench or staying up all night in a SkyTrain station to stay safe. Typically, those signs you’ll see are people that are really wired because they’re drinking energy drinks all night.”
Young people who are homeless face great obstacles, explained Lee, who is also a frontline housing worker and regularly accompanies youth to view potential rental suites in Surrey.
“They’re facing so many challenges from lack of funding, to competition, really, when a young person is out on their own for the first time, they’re competing for rentals with people who have an education, who have professional credentials, references, and a steady income,” he explained. “A landlord’s going to take one look at them and unfortunately they’ll be discriminated against based on their age.”
The last few years have only made things harder, with steady rent increases across the region.
“Youth on income assistance are still only entitled up to $375,” he said, noting a quick Craigslist search reveals just how unattainable housing is for that price.
|Jonquil Hallgate at the “home base” of the 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count at City Centre Library. (Photo: Amy Reid)|
Jonquil Hallgate, co-chair of the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, echoed Lee’s comments that a 24-hour snapshot isn’t enough to capture the youth population accurately.
“It’s very targeted,” she said of the new methodology in the youth count, pointing to other Surrey service groups who are involved, such as Options Community Services Society and FRAFCA (Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association).
Hallgate guessed that in the 2017 regional count, many Surrey youth were counted in Vancouver.
“Vancouver has Covenant House, so a lot of Surrey youth go to other communities to access services because they can’t in their community,” she said.
Hallgate said while FRAFCA runs a youth safe house with six beds, it’s not nearly enough.
“The thing is, you have to be 19 or older to access the other shelters,” she said. “Six youth beds in Surrey – what does that say?”
While Hallgate declined to muster a guess at how many Surrey youth would be identified in this month’s count, she did say the “common fact is that whatever number you actually identify, you can multiply that by four and come closer to the reality.”
Hallgate said she’s met many youth in the LGBTQ community who left home because they weren’t accepted by their family after coming out. Many others have come out of the foster care system lacking the stability, education and support needed to start their adult life, she added.
“I think it’s important that it’s humanized and we recognize that people become homeless for a reason and often that has to do with the failure of the systems that are in place to safeguard people,” she said.
The goal, for Hallgate, is to minimize the length of time a youth stays homeless because the longer one is homeless, the harder it can be to get out of it.
Hallgate said new funding for youth aging out of foster care is going to make a difference for the children leaving the system now, “it’s not going to make a difference for the kids who’ve come before them.”
Young people aging out of government care in B.C. will now get some extra cash, and one more year to transition out of the system, if desired. As of April 1, the provincial government raised the eligibility age for the Agreements with Young Adults program to 26, matching the Provincial Tuition Waiver Program.
“We really do hope we’re going to be able to engage with a number of youth (during this new count) who haven’t been connected with in the past,” said Hallgate, “and that will give us some good information to use to look at what needs to be done differently, and how different levels of government policies relate to what’s happening with the youth population’s challenges living in poverty. We don’t want them to become the adults of the next generation who spend their lives street entrenched.”
Three events are planned for youth in Surrey during the count, including a cultural night with food, activities and transit passes for surveyed youth at FRAFCA (5 p.m. start, April 5 at 10095 Whalley Blvd.); a youth drop in with food and transit passes at Alexandra Neighbourhood House on April 6 (at 2916 McBridge Ave.); and another cultural night at FRAFCA on April 9 starting at 5 p.m.
For more details visit metrovancouver.org.