KAMLOOPS — Youth homelessness is an issue that has long been kept in the shadows, but Interior Community Services is hoping to shed some light on the subject by conducting a youth homelessness count, the first of its kind in Canada.
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Youth Homeless Manager Katherine McParland said starting today, Oct. 13, an inventory will be taken to identify how many youth are currently without a home.
"We have over 1,200 surveys blanketing the community allowing youth to have an opportunity to share what they need to obtain housing and supports," McParland explained. "We've also partnered with the school district, and so we've developed an online survey and we'll really be focusing on youth that are at risk for homelessness and how we can prevent that from ever happening and mitigating those risk factors."
Volunteers who encounter homeless youth during the count will hand out backpacks stocked with basic survival items, however it's not always a simple task to identify who is homeless. A 2011 survey of various households in Kamloops identified there were nearly 300 youth experiencing what is referred to as hidden homelessness.
"Many of our youth are couch-surfing, and so they stay in various different places between friends places, predators, and no solid place to call their own," McParland said.
"Furthermore, many youth don't even identify as being homeless. They may think that those people that are experiencing homelessness may be the stereotypical person with the shopping cart and may not identify their own issue as homelessness."
Youth homelessness is an issue close to McParland's heart. She experience life on the streets for nearly three years after leaving the foster care system and knows all too well how isolating that lifestyle can feel.
"I can remember it was Christmas time, it was really cold, it was snowing, and just feeling almost invisible," McParland said.
"Members of the community would just walk by and sometimes not even acknowledge the situation I was in. And so today I hope that in this count we as community members are taking that moment to look at all of these youth in their eyes and say 'you matter, you're a part of this community, we want to help.'"
Valerie Janz is the director of quality and innovation with Interior Community Services. She says youth homelessness can often be traced back to time spent in foster care.
"There are some numbers that have been around that around 70 per cent of homeless youth have been in care at some point or another in their life," she said, "so we know that that's pretty common around the country and provincially and nationally they're really looking at should children actually age out of care at 19, is that too young? Because most of us with children that age would not at their 19th birthday say, 'you're on your own now.'"
Janz adds foster care isn't the only factor that can lead to homelessness. Mental health, substance use, poverty and transient lifestyles are all reasons why youth may end up on the street.
"What we do know about part of the solution is that housing is a right, and that housing first means if we can house the youth first and then deal with potential mental health and substance issues later that they have a better success rate, and that's certainly the housing first is barrier free housing, and it's part of your constitutional right to have housing for anyone."
Today also marked the annual adult homelessness, or Point-in-Time, count during which volunteers connect with and interview homeless people throughout the community.
According to count coordinator, Ken Salter, the survey has consistently found between 95 and 105 homeless people living in Kamloops. Information gathered from these individuals help to identify what services are needed and some of the factors that lead to homelessness.
"I think having the data that we're collecting today is just a good way at looking at how much low income housing we're lacking, and hopefully that will spur some of the levels of government to do something about that and start building some low income housing."
As volunteers collected information early this morning they invited people to attend Project Connect, a wellness fair held at Spirit Square on the North Shore connecting the homeless with service providers.
"People really enjoy the atmosphere, the comradery. It's a very informal way to get connected with services and they can just have conversations," said Natalie Serl, project manager of housing and homelessness with the City of Kamloops.
"It's very natural, and there's no pressure on anyone to do anything here. It's just a very good atmosphere to be in and people seem very thankful that we've put this on for them."
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