Youth need safe haven

🕔Jul 28, 2006

Every night in Terrace, and other communities in the Northwest, some teenagers spend the night either on the street or “couch-surfing” because home is not safe. Debbie Scarborough wants this to change.

Scarborough, 46, is the woman behind the drive to establish a much-needed youth emergency shelter in Terrace. She’s determined to see a facility operating, “and soon!”

As executive director of the newly formed Youth Emergency Services Society (YESS), she is campaigning for government to recognize the need for a youth shelter in the Terrace area, and to start putting money on the table. She needs $660,000 per year for operating expenses and to pay the trained staff she plans to employ.

But so far that money has not materialized from either the feds or the province, and Scarborough says the Northwest has been left behind too often in favour of programs in the Lower Mainland.

“I really think they owe it to the people of the Northwest. I think we don’t get consideration. In so many ways we’re not heard up here,” she says.

This year YESS purchased the former women’s transition house to create the shelter. It’s an ideal location because it’s centrally located downtown and already zoned for this type of service. A 40-year resident of Terrace, Scarborough says a youth emergency shelter has been needed since she herself was a teenager.

“Too many of our youth are already homeless and couch-surfing, but they’ve not been identified as homeless,” she says, adding that teens are falling through the cracks of a system that offers no safe refuge for them.

Tracking such incidents is difficult when there is no facility or support service in the community for those teens. “Trying to get a handle on the number of kids spending the night on the street is next to impossible,” she explains. That’s because the teens this shelter will accommodate generally still live at home or with a guardian.

Alcoholism, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, constant partying, or general neglect could lead youths to seek a safe haven when things get rough.

But the proposed shelter isn’t just for kids who have a rough home life. It’s as much for kids from well-to-do or middle-class families who have a blow-out with their parents and need a place to stay while things cool down, she says.

Terrace has a transition house for women and children fleeing abuse, and there’s a men’s emergency shelter, but neither facility is mandated to help teenagers.

And when kids are on the street without the means to care for themselves, they often resort to crime to make ends meet, whether to find food or for basic necessities like toothpaste and soap. And some youngsters, particularly girls, are putting themselves in precarious positions just to have a warm place to sleep.

Jenny Bowsher, 18, is a youth ambassador for the safe home, and a youth advisor to its board of directors. Confident and well-spoken, Bowsher is fast becoming the youth voice for the shelter, though there are numerous teens who support the project.

She’s convinced the proposed seven-bed facility will be filled to overflowing every night. She says that young people she knows who have nowhere to go sometimes make bad decisions because the only other option is sleeping on a park bench, in a dark alley, or in the bushes.

“They do what they call couch-surfing, and put themselves in situations one shouldn’t be in, like ‘putting out’ sexually so they can sleep on the couch or get some food,” Bowsher says.

Recently a group of teens met with Scarborough to discuss the need for a shelter. The group told stories about girls as young as 12 providing sexual favours for a place to sleep. Bowsher says that’s unacceptable.

“I think it’s really unfair that there is no youth emergency shelter—it shocked me when I heard about it. I mean, we’re kids, and we do need help even if some of us are 16 or 17,” she says.

The youth safe home will also offer comprehensive counseling and referral services. This includes efforts to solve the issues that bring young people to the shelter in the first place. It could involve working with parents and guardians, or simply providing someone for the young people to talk to.

The Terrace area has no on-site suicide counseling services, and few services for young people to access without a referral. Scarborough wants to fill that void because she believes teens need help the minute they walk through the door.

“I think it’s one of the most important parts because they aren’t going to be able to turn themselves around or get help with their families without it,” says Jenny Bowsher, of the support services. “They’re going to need help.”

Scarborough charges that northern communities have been left out of the loop regarding funding programs for youth homelessness initiatives, and she’s frustrated because the facility is so badly needed. The community has provided tremendous support for the project. She’s received letters of support from Terrace city council and MLA Robin Austin, support from Skeena Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen and from dozens of youth who speak frankly about the need for a shelter.

One of those teens is Brandy Benson, an 18-year-old Parkside Secondary student. “I don’t think it’s fair that there’s protection for adults—women have the transition house if they are in danger, and men have the emergency shelter if they have nowhere to go—but teenagers and children don’t, when they need it more than anybody,” she says.

“I have a best friend who was homeless for two months. He walked the streets many nights.”

Debbie Scarborough continues to lobby both the federal and provincial governments to secure the money she needs to get the project off the ground. If you listen to the teenagers themselves, the doors of the youth emergency centre can’t open soon enough.