British Columbia

16-year-old under B.C. ministry care living in Victoria homeless camp

Despite claims by a 16-year-old that she is happy living in a Victoria homeless camp, the province's advocate for children and youth says the situation is unacceptable.

Children's advocate says situation is a 'canary in a coal mine'

Concerns are being raised after a 16-year-old girl was found to be living in a tent city in Victoria while under ministry care. (CBC)

Despite claims by a 16-year-old that she is happy living in a Victoria homeless camp, the province's advocate for children and youth says the situation is not safe, and that more needs to be done to support B.C.'s teenagers under ministry care.

The youth, whose identity cannot be revealed, is currently living in a makeshift wooden structure at the camp on the grounds of Victoria's courthouse.

She told CBC news that she has been in and out of ministry care, first from ages one to four, then again when she was 13.

She said the majority of the time since then she has been living rough, and the homeless camp provides a sense of family and community, as well as safety.

Children's advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond told CBC News that when camps appear such as the one in Victoria or last year's camp at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, vulnerable youth are attracted to them.

A canary in a coal mine

"They are not necessarily in good shape," Turpel-Lafond said. "The type of care they have had has not been a family.

"It is a bit of a canary in a coal mine about how our social care system is here in B.C."

Turpel-Lafond said that the environment the teens find themselves in at these camps often feels welcoming, but that the reality can be very different.

"People are very willing to give them — for free — their first few hits of crystal meth, or whatever street drug, and then after that their lives begin to fall apart very quickly."

Turpel-Lafond said that often youth in this situation are hurt or injured and, in the case of young women, subject to sexual violence.

'We should be pulling them closer'

She said that once children in ministry care reach 14 or 15, they are often pushed towards independence.

"Instead of pushing them out, or aging them out, we should be pulling them closer — keeping them in a family setting, [in] teen adoption," she said.

The idea that young people in ministry care are living in homeless camps, and people don't believe that anything can be done about it, is, Turpel-Lafond said, "not an acceptable situation".

"It's not acceptable that kids are in hotels. It's not acceptable that kids are homeless, but that's a product of our system.

The 16-year-old girl living at the tent city says that someone from the ministry comes daily to check she is still at the camp, and that since she spoke to the media, they have also been checking in by text.

Asked if she wants the ministry in her life, she said she did not.

'It's more of a family here'

"Maybe a couple of years ago, I would have," she said.

Now, though, she says she wants her independence.

"It is more of a family here," she said. "A lot of the time I was in foster homes or group homes, I felt reminded of the fact that I was their paycheck.  They were paid to be there, paid to care. It just didn't feel genuine.

"They are very warm and caring here," she said of those in the camp. "They don't need to be, but they are."

A statement released Friday afternoon by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) said that a social worker has been assigned to visit the camp site every day to identify and work with the youth present on finding safer places to live.

"MCFD is committed to providing the most appropriate level of services available, but has no legal authority to confine a child or youth in a foster care placement, nor can the ministry restrain or forcibly remove any youth from a location, even if that location is a tent city," said Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux's in the statement.

With files from Richard Zussman