This blog post was provided by Deborah Woolway, a volunteer at Phoenix Youth Programs.
There is a special feeling at the Phoenix Youth Shelter around the holidays. First opened on Christmas Eve in 2001, the Shelter has been a gift for youth who need a safe, comfortable, supportive place to access resources and move forward in their lives.
“I was really hungry and was just thinking, I hope they’ll give me food whether or not there’s a bed,” said Paul who recalls walking up the steps at the Phoenix Youth Shelter, one of Phoenix’s eight programs. “Me and my girlfriend were staying on a friend’s couch so we weren’t completely out on the streets, but it wasn’t comfortable. We didn’t have food, and we didn’t have money. It was really frustrating.”
There are 20 bedrooms at the Shelter. Each floor of the three-story building is divided by gender, with some rooms specifically for youth who do not identify as male or female. Youth decide which area will be most comfortable for them. When settling in, the first day is about getting stabilized. Everyone gets a bed, food, clean towels, and clothing, but mainly the young people who arrive on the doorstep get a chance to take a breath in a safe place.
But across Canada, the demand is huge, and the statistics are sobering.
“Without A Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey” of 2018, shows 20 percent of Canada’s homeless population is comprised of youth between the ages of 13 to 24. However, the numbers are likely much higher, because of hidden homelessness. Youth who couch surf, for example, are hard to account for.
Last year 198 youth visited the Phoenix Youth Shelter.
In the “Without a Home” report, 40% of homeless youth said they experienced homelessness before the age of 16. The reasons youth become homeless are varied. Some youth leave home because they feel unsafe or don’t have the supports they need. Not surprisingly, trauma, poverty, and loss can have a serious effect on the health of youth experiencing homelessness. In recent years Phoenix has seen how these factors impact the health of youth, as 80 to 90 percent of the youth who entered Phoenix’s Shelter had a drug addiction, or a significant mental health challenge.
“No one wants to live in a shelter,” says Stephanie Sabean, who manages at the Shelter. “But youth who come here want to be here. If they’re 16 to 24 and have no safe place to stay—we take them.”
Here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, word about Phoenix gets around fast, especially when temperatures drop to -15 degrees, or when a blizzard blows in. That’s when the shelter adds five beds and Phoenix works to ensure everyone is safe.
While winter is challenging, the holidays are a special time for building trusting relationships. Phoenix Youth Shelter’s staff and volunteers provide a source of warmth and comfort. Staff encourage youth to bake cookies, make gifts for people they care about, or head outside to see the holiday lights.
There’s also a holiday party made possible through the support of a local church. Everyone leaves with a stocking, hand made by volunteers and filled with essential items donated by many generous community members. On December 25th every youth wakes up to a gift under the tree before volunteers arrive with all the fixings for a turkey dinner.
On any given night more than 40 youth are staying under one of Phoenix’s roofs, whether at the Shelter, Phoenix House, or Phoenix’s Homes for Independence. Another 25 youth are living independently with help from the organization’s Housing Support Worker.
During the daytime, many youth head to the Phoenix Centre for Youth in downtown Halifax to access health care, financial services, case management, housing support, and more.
“The biggest surprise for me is that there is so much support out there, at least for people under 25,” says Paul. “The Shelter was absolutely integral to getting me on my feet. If you are living on the streets there is absolutely nothing.”
Paul’s also getting support from the Phoenix Learning and Employment Centre.
“They helped me get on disability and do up a resume and I applied for jobs,” says Paul. “I’ve also applied to Saint Mary’s University and been accepted [to study] psychology.”
“These youth have amazing strengths and skills,” says Sabean. “The sad part is a lot of them don’t even look at themselves that way. I tell them ‘Don’t say that about yourself. You are so much more. You’re just experiencing a period of homelessness. And you can turn it all around’.”
Paul has taken that message to heart, and he’s grateful for the way he’s been treated.
“I’m really glad the shelter was here when I needed it. When you have a base and ground to lean on, you can build on that. I screwed up once or twice. This place has given me a chance to get back on my feet. It’s given me support.”