THE North Shore Youth Safe House had to turn away more at-risk youth than it could accommodate in 2012.
The four emergency beds and two transitional beds at the safe house, run by Hollyburn Family Services, constitute the only resources serving homeless and troubled youth from Deep Cove to Pemberton.
"We have a crisis. We have young people homeless on our streets," said Hollyburn youth services co-ordinator Paul Butler.
"This December we are turning away many young people who need our help due to lack of space in our small facility," he said.
The safe house provides a temporary respite for kids who, for whatever reason, have nowhere else to go. The house also connects them to resources in the community.
"A shelter is about a bed. What we do is have immediate services available for youth," said Butler.
The safe house, like other charitable organizations, is experiencing a debilitating shortfall in donations this year.
The funding grant that sustains the house comes through the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy for the Metro Vancouver region and is overseen by the Vancity Community Foundation. But every two years the future of the house faces uncertainty because there is no guarantee that the funding will be extended.
It costs roughly $400,000 annually to run the safe house, according to Butler.
"We don't know if that money is going to be there in two years," said Butler. "Meanwhile, we make sure every dime counts. We have to."
Between 150-200 youth per year come through the home. In the most recent homeless count, the North Shore had the highest increase in youth homelessness in Metro Vancouver.
The teens come from Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton as well as the North Shore.
Guests at the safe house get access to a bed, food and basic necessities so they can carry on at school with minimal disruptions.
Diane (not her real name in order to protect her son's identity) is a mother whose son stayed off the streets, in school and out of danger due to his stay at the house.
"They do more than give them a bed. They talk to them, give them counselling and guidance," she said.
"It was a godsend," said Diane. "It's stressful enough when you're having conflict at home, let alone worrying about where your kid is at night."
When youth phone and there are no beds available, they are given a list of other safe houses (that also might be full) along with bus fare. During times when a bed was not available, Diane's son couch-surfed or slept outside.
What Hollyburn needs in order to continue helping youth is cash. The house provides socks and underwear, food and bare necessities like toothbrushes and sanitary pads that the strict federal government funding contract does not cover.
If the safe house were to double in size to eight beds, it would better meet the needs of the community, he said.
Helping youth off the streets is a beginning, but one week in a home doesn't end the cycle of homelessness. With this in mind, Hollyburn is also working towards a Legacy Fund for young people to enter training programs and obtain the skills that will better their lives.
"A few pennies go a long way," said Butler. The safe house is truly the only suitable, safe option for troubled North Shore kids.
The Lookout Emergency Aid Society's North Shore Shelter is not an appropriate place for youth because the adult guests there are more likely to have histories with substance abuse and mental health issues, said Diane.
"You wouldn't put a 13-year-old girl in there," she said. There are many more emergency housing options in Vancouver, but staying across the inlet presents a logistical challenge. Often youth who have left home don't have any cash on hand and feel safer on the North Shore where they go to school, have community support and know the lay of the land, said Diane.
There may also be fewer foster home spaces on the North Shore because, due to relative affluence, fewer North Shore parents are motivated by money to open their homes to foster children (foster parents are paid for their services).
The only option is for the safe house to expand, said Diane. According to the 2011 Canadian long form census, there are 38,690 school-aged youth aged 19 or younger living in the three North Shore municipalities.
According to Diane, the how and why only six beds serve such a large population of youth leads back to the larger issue of the "North Shore bubble."
There is little visibility or discussion of troubled youth because admitting the issue would burst peoples' idealistic image the North Shore utopia, she said.
For example, children from the Handsworth secondary catchment area have the highest admission rate to Lions Gate Hospital for drug and alcohol abuse. The area is ostensibly wealthy, but in early 2012 a student was living out of a car on the school's property, said Diane.
The lack of affordable housing on the North Shore also drives homelessness, while overcrowded high schools mean that more kids slip through the cracks, she said.
There is also no detox treatment program for youth or adults on the North Shore.
"We want to be seen as this super, active, healthy family environment. We don't want to admit we have a lot of troubled youth," said Diane.
Most community members are not aware that there are youth sleeping in bathrooms, parks and cars, she said.
The kids using the safe house come from all economic backgrounds. "They're the kid next door. They're North Shore born and raised," said Diane.
Without anywhere else to go, kids will remain in bad home situations. But, Butler is wary of broadcasting about the safe house because it is already always full.
Hollyburn also provides long-term housing for six 18-24 year olds and that initiative has been full since it opened. There are as many young people on the wait list as there are in the program.
The Vancouver Foundation provided capital and the District of North Vancouver sold the houses to Hollyburn for one dollar. There was no senior government funding for those houses.
"We can build a bridge and new stadium roof, but when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable it's unavailable," said Butler.
In the past, Hollyburn has received exceptional community support from local churches, Rotarians and the Lions Club.
"It's up to the community to provide a voice for at-risk youth. It's not like they can march down the street to the government and say, 'Here I am.' The cost is huge if we don't take care of our youth," said Butler.
When fewer youth use emergency and justice services, it costs the system, and ultimately taxpayers, less money, said Butler.
They are far less likely to use these services when they have a stable, respectful environment to go home to, he said.
The safe house initially faced skepticism from residents who feared its presence would bring down their property values. Resistance was overcome through community dialogue.
"It actually benefits your community and makes it more healthy," said Butler. "It's about people understanding as a community that we can all help solve homelessness for young people."
"There's a strong case that there should be close-to-home safe houses for youth," said John Weston, MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.
However, funding for such initiatives should not necessarily come from government agencies, he said.
"It's not always the role for the taxpayers, but for the community," said Weston.
"As a community the North Shore is known for its prosperity but is also renowned for its caring and compassion."
Weston said he will not support the expansion of the safe house until he gains more information about the project.
Until then, it's up to us. "Youth are all promising, they just need some help," said Diane.
But because of the bed limitation, the North Shore Youth Safe House often cannot provide that help. According to Butler, staff at the safe house had to turn away three teens over the Christmas holiday season.
Find out more about Hollyburn Family Services at hollyburn.ca.
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