‘HOME’ FLEETING FOR LANGLEY KIDS
Not just a Downtown Eastside issue, at least 160 high school students in this suburban community are homeless, Lori Culbert writes.
Selina Perry’s remarkable road to an advanced education was an uphill grind, one that began with high school years marred by homelessness, poverty and a societal ignorance about the plight of young people without homes.
“For the majority of my life I lived in Aldergrove, but when everything happened to me I became homeless. There is no homeless shelter in Langley, and it was really, really hard to still go to school. I know a lot of kids who dropped out of school because the closest safe house was in Maple Ridge,” Perry, now 18, said. “I realized that it was either school or drugs, and I didn’t want to do drugs, so I made school the only option.”
Perry’s resilience helped her to graduate from high school, despite years of couch-surfing, safe houses and donated clothing and food.
Her heartbreaking high school years, however, are not uncommon.
Last year, the Encompass Support Services Society, which works with vulnerable youth, helped 162 Langley high school students who were homeless or in very unstable housing. The shocking number has sparked a firestorm of debate in the largely middle-class suburban community, which had seemed far — both literally and philosophically — from Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside.
Langley’s youth homeless problem is much less visible than Vancouver’s — you won’t find these teens sleeping on the street because most prefer not to self-identify as homeless, as long as they can crash on a friend’s couch or in a shelter bed, and get fed through the school’s breakfast and lunch program.
“The topic of youth homelessness is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people,” Encompass’ Alison Nichol said. “(Youth) don’t want the stigmatization of being homeless. You think of someone pushing a shopping cart down the street or sleeping in a doorway. … Their language and self-identification looks different, making it a very challenging number to track accurately.”
The startling number of youth in this situation, though, has prompted some Langley high school students to form a social justice task force that aims to get more community organizations to offer help, and to convince the township and city councils in Langley to open an emergency shelter for youth.
“I personally do know multiple youth who struggle to find places to stay a lot of nights and have to couch surf or stay at friends’ houses due to not actually having a home,” Grade 11 task force member Elliot Cluney said. “When you’re going to school, how can anyone expect them to be 100 per cent there and focusing when they have to think about where they’re supposed to stay the night?”
Perry’s troubles started when she was in Grade 9 and was trying to get away from an abusive older man who lived in her parents’ low-income neighbourhood. Her parents didn’t have the money to move, so she fled to a series of friends’ couches and then to a Maple Ridge safe house.
She took four buses one way to commute to Aldergrove Secondary and wore hand-me-downs from an outreach worker’s office. In her last year of high school, the provincial government put her on a youth agreement and she found a basement apartment in Surrey, where she graduated ahead of schedule so she could focus on establishing a career before losing her government assistance at age 19.
“If I had a safe place to stay (in Langley), I think I would have done better in my grades for sure. I know I graduated early, but only because I pushed so hard, and I only got C-pluses. And better grades would have gotten me into a better university and eventually a better job,” said Perry, who is now studying to be a legal assistant and financing her education with a job at a gym.
“I spread myself so thin because I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get to school on time and still find time to do my homework.”
One of the biggest challenges in a city like Langley, where few would expect youth homelessness, is there are few resources available.
The Salvation Army runs a homeless shelter that is open only to those 19 and older. The closest shelters that allow youth are in Surrey and Abbotsford. (The one in Maple Ridge where Perry stayed has since closed.)
Those who can’t find an available shelter bed, or won’t leave their support networks, are often forced to make unsafe choices to stay in Langley, Nichol said.
Last year, the City of Langley launched a committee to examine homelessness, which includes two councillors from Langley District. Although recommendations are not expected to be delivered for about a month, Langley City director of corporate services Darrin Leite sounded unconvinced when asked if his community should have its own youth shelter.
“I don’t have a response to that at this time,” he said.
He cited the two-bed Cardinal House as an example of a resource available to vulnerable youth. But the facility, which is run by Encompass, is open only to youth in government care, which isn’t the case for most of the homeless youth in Langley, Nichol said.
Teens end up with no housing or precarious housing for a variety of reasons — family conflicts, abuse, addiction. “I’ve had situations where a youth has removed themselves from a home because of poverty. There isn’t enough food in the house,” Nichol said.
It is not unusual for staff at Langley Secondary School to spend Friday afternoons phoning shelters, but they are frequently unable to find an open bed nearby, principal Dawne Tomlinson said.
“We’ve had a number of situations where we’ve had to let a kid go over the weekend and we don’t know whether they are safe,” she said. “We feed them and we care for them and we wrap around them, but we can’t take them home with us.”
An estimated 3,000 students show up hungry every day in Langley, where many schools offer free breakfast and lunch. Backpacks full of food are sent home each weekend to 23 needy families.
Schools across the region are increasingly offering social servic- es in addition to education. When a Grade 12 Langley football player found himself on the street, the closest available shelter bed was in Burnaby, a long daily trek on an inconvenient transit route.
He stayed on the team and even graduated, but it was a difficult year.
“You could see the struggle with him, and the determination with his schooling,” Tomlinson said. “(Youths like that student) want to stay in their home school. It puts them in a real challenging place because the one place they feel safe is their school, but it doesn’t keep them safe at night.”
Cluney and fellow task force member Elly Choi are organizing an open house about student homelessness on Wednesday at the Langley school board office.
“It really upset me when I heard that up to 162 students don’t have a roof over their heads because we don’t have the opportunity (to house them),” said Choi, also in Grade 11.
“We want a youth shelter in Langley so youth who are couchsurfing don’t have to relocate to other places like Surrey and Abbotsford.”
Demographics in Langley have been shifting, said Susan Cairns, chair of the foundation that raises extra money for the school board. Vancouver’s sky-high rental rates are driving people to the more-affordable suburbs, where there are an increasing number of single mothers, families in basement suites and refugees, she added. Langley is not alone, though. While the Surrey school board does not have an estimate of the number of its students who are homeless, administrators are often calling the children’s ministry, shelters and friends’ homes to try to find beds for vulnerable kids, spokesman Doug Strachan said. Surrey also offers free food and phones the homes of at-risk students if they don’t show up for classes.
The 2014 Metro Homelessness Count identified 20 people under the age of 25 without homes in Langley, but found that only two were in shelters while the rest had nowhere to live. Surrey, by comparison, had a lower per capita rate of homeless youth, and half of them were in shelters.
“I think … the main thing is to get some sort of facility for these kids. It is unworkable for these kids to go back and forth from Langley to Surrey and Abbotsford every day. These are huge areas (with) not very good transit,” Cairns said.
“It defeats them before they even get to school.”
People need to offer more resources to homeless youth, Perry argues, and realize they are often hidden in plain view.
“When someone thinks of homelessness, they think of sleeping on the streets — you are in ragged clothes, you are in cardboard box. It is sad that is the stigma of homelessness, and we have to get past that,” she said.
“I’ve been on the bus and I’ve had a backpack full of all my stuff, but people assume it is just full of textbooks. It could be a neighbour or your friend or the person sitting beside you who is homeless. It sucks.”
When you’re going to school, how can anyone expect them to be 100 per cent there and focusing when they have to think about where they’re supposed to stay the night? ELLIOT CLUNEY, G ra d e 11 We feed them and we care for them and we wrap around them, but we can’t take them home with us. DAWNE TOMLINSON, principal, Langley Secondary School