Being a teenager isn’t easy. The pressure to fit in and be accepted by your peers on top of the stresses of school and family life can be tough. It is even tougher on people when they or their parents have mental health issues and are living in a dysfunctional household where they endure emotional, sexual, and physical abuse.
Yet, that’s the reality for many young people in Durham Region. It is estimated there are a little less than 1,200 people who are homeless, according to Durham Region’s Five Year Summary Report of Homelessness Service Statistics.
Youth homelessness is a real issue that too many people are unaware of, according to Julien LeBourdais, the executive director of Joanne’s House, a youth homeless shelter, in Ajax.
“The average person probably has little awareness of homelessness,” he says, “They think of it as the guy who sits on the street corner downtown Toronto and that doesn’t happen out here.”
Many of the teens faced with these issues are temporarily residing at Joanne’s House, which is the only youth homeless shelter in Durham Region.
“They’re still dealing with what teenagers are dealing with plus the fact that their father beats them or their mother is a hooker,” says LeBourdais. “You don’t necessarily know their upbringing. They have been subjected to bad things for years.”
What surprises LeBourdais the most are the number of problems these kids have when coming to Joanne’s House.
Kelda Lesly knows this. She was homeless during her youth. “The reasons are as individual as the individuals themselves,” she says.
When Lesly was homeless some of her friends were too.
“Most were couch surfers,” she says, “where if you were to ask them if they were homeless they would say no. But if you said ‘where did you sleep last night?’ they would say something along the lines of one friend’s house the last two weeks and at another friend’s house, their parents let me stay for a month and a half.”
At the end of the day, Lesly says, these kids still have no home. No one is there to help them buy essential things like toothpaste, deodorant, or paper for school. So, how can the 13 beds at Joanne’s House be enough to cover the entire Durham Region?
Youth homelessness is an invisible issue, according to Lesly and LeBourdais. It is similar to not being able to see families that go hungry. “How can you be aware of families where parents eat less so their kids have enough to eat?” LeBourdais says, “How would you know that isn’t happening in a house down the street?”
Lesly agrees. “Youth homelessness frequently has little to do with money, meaning mental illness doesn’t judge between income level, abuse doesn’t judge between income level, so you might have someone with no money or a lot of money and it’s the exact same thing going on behind closed doors,” says Lesly.
Joanne’s House and other shelters like it provide kids with the chance of getting their high school diploma. A majority of homeless youth have dropped out of school, according to LeBourdais
Joanne’s House offers courses for kids who want to graduate and otherwise would not be able to because they were kicked out of school. LeBourdais says two students recently completed courses with the support of Joanne’s House and received their high school diplomas. One of them is registered to go to Durham College next year.
LeBourdais believes every kid deserves an equal chance at an education. What some of these youth need is the opportunity and someone to believe in them, he says.
When these kids are exposed to a toxic environment long enough, many of them feel worthless and like they’ll never amount to anything, LeBourdais says.
“If you tell a kid often enough that they’re no good, then why are you surprised that they begin to believe it after a while?” he asks.
Lesly says people don’t always understand. “Most people would look and say it is a bad kid choosing to run away, as opposed to it’s a homeless kid who really has got nowhere to go,” she says.
According to Lesly, society is great at judging homeless youth and telling them they need to get their life back on track. People look at kids that have run away from home and think they are “obviously making the wrong choices, as if the choices existed,” says Lesly, adding a lot of homeless youth are just trying to survive day to day and stay away from the abusive homes where they were raised.
For some, Joanne’s House may be a temporary safe haven for youth that left abusive households. For others, it is a chance to make something of themselves, get an education, and have a second chance at life.