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Donors save North Shore youth safe house

Akayla Burley was in need of a rescue. She’d spent most of her life contending with the ups and downs of mental illness but in 2013, things were coming to a head.
youth safe house

Akayla Burley was in need of a rescue.

She’d spent most of her life contending with the ups and downs of mental illness but in 2013, things were coming to a head.

“I was in a position where I was either going to go home and I was going to kill myself or I needed to find some kind of alternative,” she said. 

Though pained by fear and anxiety, Burley got checked in at the North Shore Youth Safe House run by the Hollyburn Family Services Society, a critical first step in finding relief.

“It was a safe place. That was all I really needed to know at that time, that I had a place. That I wasn’t on the street and I didn’t have to go back to where I was.”

Burley said she had wonderful parents who did their best but family dynamics combined with her mental illness made staying at home untenable.

She was 18, the upper age limit for teens the house typically allows in. She also found herself in an awkward position – too old for foster care and on the verge of “aging out” of the youth care system.

“The ministry didn’t really know what to do with me so they kind of just let it slide. That’s where Hollyburn stepped in and helped me access resources,” she said. “That was a huge turning point for me. That was the first time I decided ‘OK, I actually want to survive this and I’m going to make an effort to do that.’ And suddenly I had people who wanted to help me do that.”

She went through counselling and a number of Hollyburn’s programs to build life skills. She moved around between safe houses but eventually graduated to Hollyburn’s transitional suite where she had more independence but also more responsibility,

“I was trying to sort out how to be a human being and be an adult and I didn’t really have any guidance outside of that,” she said.

Hollyburn helped her get on disability payments and ease back into working life. Burley also bonded with other teens in Hollyburn’s programs, making some the closest friends she has today.

Joy Hayden, innovation and engagement specialist with Hollyburn, will tell you there’s no better return on investment of social capital than with kids. Burley is proof of that.

She still has chronic mental illness but, she says she’s far better at managing it and she has the tools she needs to live a normal life, thanks to what she’s learned.

She’s since become a certified care aid and is now enrolled in university, working towards a degree in social work so she can make a career out of helping others the way she has been helped.

But stories like Burley’s nearly came to an end on the North Shore.

In 2016, the federal Liberals reprioritized how housing dollars would be spent, focusing funding on people who are chronically homeless – on the streets for six straight months. Six months on the street is simply too long for a child, Hayden said.

“You don’t want a youth on the street. You’ll never get them back,” she said. “They’ll end up on the Downtown Eastside and then we’ve lost them.”

Staff scrambled and found other grants (including one from a homelessness-focused NGO in Lichtenstein). But they were still left with a $150,000 per year shortfall.

It costs about $500,000 per year to run the home, which typically has six youth staying there at any given time, plus two staff 24 hours a day. After the cost of staffing, groceries take up much of the budget.

“If you’ve got a kid who has lived on the streets for a couple of weeks, they can empty a fridge in a second,” Hayden said.

About a 150 kids escaping abuse, neglect or family strife bed down there each year.

Looking to keep the doors open, Hollyburn approached philanthropists Tony and Kim Allard, who had come to the rescue when the safe house ran into a funding shortfall a decade ago.

Allard went through his Rolodex and sought commitments from his friends and industry contacts to cover the costs. Together, they came up with $110,000 a year for three years.

Then developer Anthem Properties heard about the campaign and put up the remaining $40,000 plus a pledge to put up an additional $40,000 in matching dollars if they could leverage more donations from the community.

Among the contributors in West Vancouver was 16-year-old Ellie Willock who donated an inheritance she received after the death of her grandmother. Willock was inspired by Burley’s story after hearing her speak at the Ambleside Youth Centre.

Allard is a firm believer that these types of services should be funded by governments but thought, in the short-term, it was better to “clean this up,” he said, allowing Hollyburn to “stop worrying about funding and focus on the kids.”

“We’re all part of a family. You try to take care of your family first and your neighbourhood and your immediate community. On the North Shore, we’re very lucky people and if there are youth in our community that need a safe house to go to, my goodness, it’s our responsibility to make sure they have a place to go. Thankfully, everyone I’ve talked to about it feels the same way and we’re happy to support it,” he said. “It’s something we think the government should do but didn’t want to make that an excuse for doing nothing.”

Last week, Hollyburn and the donors celebrated hitting their fundraising goal, meaning for the next few years, at least, the next Akayla Burley on the North Shore will have a place to go. The hope is that the federal dollars will return.

The youth safe houses in other towns haven’t been so lucky.

“I don’t think there really is any way in words to express how grateful I feel,” Burley said. “Knowing that those people are still getting the care that they need, it is really important to me. Especially as someone who has been in that position before.”

Since 2016, Hollyburn staff have had sit-down meetings with the North Shore’s Liberal MPs and, after making it clear what is at stake, Hayden believes those federal dollars will become available in future budgets.

“We don’t have details but we do know there is a fair share that’s going to be coming to the North Shore. There are some youth initiatives. There are going to be some initiatives for women fleeing abusive situations. I think we’ve been heard and I think it is going to be executed. I believe that that’s been a result of us and other organizations that have been advocating,” she said.

For the sake of others on her path, Burley certainly hopes so.

“I don’t think it’s even possible to stress enough how important these services are. I know I’m not the only one who wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for places like the safe house. I’ve met a lot of people who have been through those programs and a lot of times, we’re coming from really dire situations where we don’t have any place else to go,” she said.

Burley, like many of the youth she met through Hollyburn, questioned whether she was “deserving” of the help she got at the safe house. But she stressed, for any young people struggling: find a way to knock on the door.

“The people who spend time there come from all walks of life,” she said. “They’re there for everyone who needs it.”

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