Why adult shelters are scary for London's homeless youth

A young woman who has experienced homelessness explains why adult shelters fall short of serving young people who struggle to find housing.

Youth Opportunities Unlimited is working to build a youth-only shelter in the city

Courtney Bain spent five years living on London's streets and says staying in a homeless shelter geared for adults can be a scary experience: 'You’re walking into a room full of drug addicts essentially.' (Amanda Margison/CBC)

During her five years living on London's streets, Courtney Bain spent a few nights in homeless shelters geared to adults. 

It was a memorable experience, for all the wrong reasons. 

"When you're brand new, you're walking into a room full of drug addicts, essentially, and people that have maybe been scarred ... so they're just hard," she said in an interview on London Morning on Monday. You can listen to the interview here

"You have other adult women coming in to your room at two o'clock in the morning, asking if you have a lighter, [offering to] split their drugs with you. At first, you're shocked and disgusted but as time goes on, you start to try those things. That becomes normal to you. That's how [people] slip."

She said finding a friend in the shelter was essential. 

"One would stay up and the other one slept, and then we'd switch," she said. "You didn't know if you fell asleep if your stuff ... would be there in the morning.

Bain said as London's rents rise and vacancy rates fall, more young Londoners are struggling to find stable, affordable housing. 

Last week Marisa Collison, 18, shared her story of living on London's streets with CBC London. She spoke about starting the new year off sleeping in a storage closet inside the underground parking lot at CitiPlaza. She's also slept outside in city doorways and parks. 

Right now, the Salvation Army operates 30 shelter beds geared to youth at its facility at Horton and Wellington streets. 

Working on solutions

Steve Cordes is working to provide more options for young Londoners at risk of homelessness. 

His organization, Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), is working to build a 30-bed youth-only emergency shelter on Clarke Rd. near Oxford St. in northeast London.

The organization is also in the process of revamping the former New Yorker movie theatre on the corner of Richmond and York streets into transitional housing for youth families and any young person in need, Cordes said.

That space, dubbed the New Addition, will also be home to a youth wellness centre.   

Currently, YOU provides counselling and other drop-in services for at-risk youth, and often sees between 50 and 80 clients a day. Cordes said it's hard to get firm numbers, but he's heard estimates that suggest there are as many as 500 young people in London who experience homelessness. 

Steve Cordes is the executive director of Youth Opportunities Unlimited. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"There is not affordable housing in this city and that's new to London," said Cordes. "Other cities have grappled with that and that's been their path for a long time. In London, it's very new. We need to create affordable housing. Period."

He said the city also needs to stop looking past the problem.

"How can you write off an 18-year-old person? A civil community doesn't do that."

Bain now has a full-time job and says the turning point came for her when she was 23. 

"I was sitting at a community meal and what struck me was the older women, and all of a sudden I just wondered how they got there, how they were in their 40s and 50s still on the street and I knew I didn't want to be that. I knew that I wanted more. I told myself if I didn't get myself together by the time I was 25, I would probably be one of those statistics."

She took advantage of some of the supports offered by YOU.

"Someone decided to help me and that made all the difference," she said.  


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