Successful Calgary youth homeless project sets example for North America
CBC is choosing to identify the Infinity Project youth by first names only for privacy concerns
Life was bad enough at home that at 15 years old, Ashleigh knew she needed out.
"My parents are from Fiji, so we've got an ethnic background. A lot of the stuff that is seen as teaching a child how to live their life is very, very abusive. My dad used to drink a lot, my dad used to beat on me a lot, used to beat on my sisters a lot, my mom," she explains.
For the next three years, she flitted between friends' houses after getting kicked out of her boyfriend's place. Avenue 15 – the homeless youth shelter downtown – was becoming the place she hung her hat.
The stress of not knowing where her food would come from, or where her bed would be at night, kept her from being able to reach for anything better.
Just before she turned 18, she got a call from the Infinity Project; a housing-first initiative run for kids age 16 to 24 by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary. And just like that, Ashleigh's life changed.
What is the Infinity Project?
The Infinity Project uses the housing-first approach, which means youth in the program get a roof over their head before dealing with any of the underlying factors of why they're on the streets. Infinity takes that approach one step further, the program gives the youth housing no matter what, explained Heidi Walter, the manager of youth housing for Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary.
If they throw a party and get evicted, they'll be rehomed. If they don't have enough money to make up their part of rent, they're covered. If they end up in a strange city with no reasonable explanation as to how they got there, no problem, Infinity will get them a bus ticket back.
However, the program does not stop what they call "natural consequences" from occurring. If you're continuously evicted, you have to keep packing up your stuff and moving. If you break the law, you still have the cops to deal with. The idea is that the program acts as a safety net while still letting the youth learn from their actions.
In addition to housing, youth also have access to the arsenal of supports the program works with, such as food bank hampers, mental health services, and addictions counseling.
And more than that, the support workers cultivate relationships with the youth; a support that many of the youth in the program have never known before.
"You know having someone there who is proud of me and showing me I can be proud of me too – that's something that really, really helped me grow," Ashleigh said.
Setting goals and making progress
After about three years in the Infinity Project, Ashleigh is almost ready to graduate. She's got a job, a house and a cat named Jacks. Her support worker Jonathan Hung is amazed at the progress she's made.
"I'm not there holding their hand, leading them. I truly believe that I'm walking side by side with my client. So when they go faster, I go faster with them. If they slow down, then I'm slowing down with them. Of course, if they fell down, I'm there to pick them up," Hung said in an interview.
The program doesn't impose rules on the youth or insist on them meeting certain goals. Instead, the program allows for them to choose what they want.
"A great example is, if a youth has an addiction but the youth doesn't identify that they have an addiction, then it's not time for them. We will focus on what they want to focus on. Eventually they will get to the place where they realize that an addiction is a barrier to other pieces falling into place in their life. But we'll wait with them and we'll walk with them until they get there," said Walter.
"It just happens naturally that kids will want change, they're kids! They're awesome! They want better for themselves," she added.
962 days, 95% success
The average time that an individual spends in the program before graduating is 962 days. Since the program started in 2009, they have graduated 74 youth with 39 currently enrolled. Their annual operating costs have expanded to just over $800,000, funded by the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
95 per cent of the youth that have gone through the program, still have a roof over their head today.
The program started a year after the 2008 point-in-time homeless count saw a 34 per cent increase in the number of homeless youth over the 2006 count.
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Homeless Hub – an online research database run by the Canadian Observatory On Homelessness at York University – has compiled a case study on the Infinity Project and its astounding success as one of the first housing-first models for youth in the country.
Walter and Kim Wirth with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary have travelled across North America trying to impart what they've learned through working with the Infinity Project so that other cities can replicate the program.
Being a part of a young person's success
Jessi was 17 when she became a mother and left home. Her own mother's drug habit made for a bad place for Jessi to try and raise her son.
The Infinity Project offered her an option when she found herself desperate and panicking for a place to live, she said. Without it, she fears she would have had to give up her son altogether.
"I know I moved in to my one-bedroom apartment with nothing but a TV and a TV stand, a play pen, and an air mattress. It was horrible, absolutely horrible. I had nothing," Jessi said.
But inside of three years, Jessi has graduated from the Infinity Project and is preparing to go to Mount Royal University in the fall.
The change seen in her since she entered the program is incredible, Walter said.
"Not only was she leaving homelessness, not only was she leaving adolescence, she was learning to be a mom. And so Jessi, her resiliency and her ability to be mature — even when she wanted to be a teenager — really came through," Walter said.
Walter said that watching the successes makes doing her job worth all of the stress.
"To know that we are a part of helping and supporting individual youth to be the best that they can be; to know that they feel that someone gave them a chance; to watch these kids ... graduate and say things like, 'I really appreciate you, but I don't need you anymore. I'm going to be okay.' ... It's [a] really, really proud [feeling]," Walter explained.
"It's not your regular job, because you get to be a part of something epic."
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