By Mia Dunbar
I remember the first time I heard about youth homelessness. Sitting in my small-town high school classroom, I tried to picture a kid my age without a home or somewhere to feel safe.
It’s hard to imagine things like this when you live in a small town. You have connections within your community, school, friends, and family. I’ve always appreciated that about small towns, and the togetherness we have. But as I grew older and made the choice to say goodbye to my little town and move on to the “big” city of Kamloops, I’ve learned that youth homelessness is much bigger and more complex than simply a “kid without a home”.
Youth homelessness is not just a 15-year-old sleeping in a park; it’s your child’s classmate getting shuffled from one family member to another because no one wants to permanently take care of them. It’s the recent graduate who, although she or he has all these amazing opportunities ahead of them, can’t seem to get the resources or housing to take advantage of that.
In my first year of university, a friend admitted to me that she had nowhere to go. Although no longer attending school, she was caught in-between the confusing transition from youth to adult. She wasn’t financially, emotionally, or mentally prepared to live on her own, but she had no other choice.
Of course, I was shocked. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around someone who I grew up with and held close to my heart being homeless. I will never forget the desperation in her voice as she tried to explain to me that she had nothing, and nowhere to go. How do you react to that as a friend, much less go through that yourself at such a critical age?
Two weeks later I found out that she was couch surfing, and on the odd nights that she couldn’t find somewhere to stay, my 18-year friend would curl up under the bleachers at the park. “Why didn’t she just go back home?” people think, as they shake their head reading this. Because she didn’t have a home to go back to. When you literally have no resources or family to take you in, where are you supposed to go? She kept it very hidden from me. I don’t know if she was ashamed of her situation, or whether she didn’t want me involved, but eventually I did lose contact.
And unfortunately, my friend’s experience isn’t unheard of. The Canadian definition of youth homelessness is a displaced youth aged 13–24. Family problems, mental health issues, and unique personal situations are just some of the main contributors that can cause youth homelessness. Many people assume that youths who are homeless are just “runaways” who aren’t respecting their parents, but that’s not the case. We can’t always make the assumption that every individual and situation is the same.
So, what do we do? How can we better combat this problem? First, we must stop seeing youth homelessness as a private or individual problem. As soon as you separate yourself from the needs of someone else, their life and problems become isolated and foreign to you. The lack of sympathy, compassion, and understanding about youth homelessness causes a friction, an “us versus them” mentality. The transition between youth and adult is already hard enough; imagine what it’s like having no support system to fall back on.
There are resources for homeless youths, such as outreach programs and shelters, but imagine if we could stop youth homelessness before it affected someone. By training more social workers, creating community awareness and general compassion for each other, and treating social problems as a nationwide issue instead of blaming it on the individual, I believe that youth homelessness would plummet.
This isn’t just a Kamloops or “big city” problem; it happens in small towns as well. We need to do better, and be better for each other.
Mia Dunbar graduated from Desert Sands Community School in Ashcroft in 2016. She is currently studying at Thompson Rivers University, hopes to become a social worker, and will be applying for the Social Worker program in January 2020.