Nfld. & Labrador

Choices for Youth hoping to give more youth more choices in more parts of the province

Provincial Expansion Coordinator Josh Smee says many of the 1,200 youth who stay in the St. John's shelter each year are from outside the city. Why not help the problem where it begins?

Goal is to expand into 6 sites within 3 years, tackling homelessness in rural areas

Josh Smee is the expansion coordinator for Choices For Youth. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Choices for Youth is hitting the road. The St. John's-based non-profit that supports at-risk and homeless youth in the city is hoping to expand its services across Newfoundland and Labrador.

"The goal is within the next three years to be active at six sites around the province," said Josh Smee, provincial expansion coordinator with the group. "And the goal is also to kickstart the development of a province-wide plan around youth homelessness."

Smee says many of the 1,200 youth that come through the doors of the Choices for Youth shelter each year are from outside the city. (Ron Webb)

The impetus for the expansion, Smee said, came from the upwards of 1,200 youth served each year in St. John's.

He said a lot of them come from smaller communities outside the city and they've often come to St. John's in search of support they can't get in their towns.

"The more these young people can get served closer to their support networks, closer to home, closer to their families, the better off they often are," he told the St. John's Morning Show.

Avoiding stigma

Smee has been travelling around the province consulting with people who work with at-risk youth and hosting youth focus groups — gatherings of people between the ages of 16 and 29 talking over pizza about what the needs are and how to address them.

He said they try to create an environment where the youth don't have to identify as being in need of help.

Smee says the services for at-risk youth in rural Newfoundland, and the people offering them, vary from community to community.

"There's a lot of stigmatization about identifying being at risk or homeless, particularly in a small community," he said. "It's not something you can always do anonymously."

The goal of the meetings, he said, is to determine which communities are most at risk, who in the community is helping address problems and how Choices for Youth might be able to partner with those people and help out.

Same problems, different look

Smee said he's learned that while the problems facing youth in smaller communities are not all that different from those facing youth in St. John's — drugs, homelessness — they look different.

"Homelessness looks different in rural Newfoundland than it might in St. John's," he said. "You might not see people sleeping on the street, but there are lots of people out there who don't have a roof over their heads."

Smee says youth homelessness looks quite different in rural Newfoundland. (The Gathering Place / Facebook)

He also said he's been seeing a lot of differences across the communities in how they respond to these issues.

"Sometimes it might be a church putting together an emergency space for people to go, or a program to get a hot meal to people. Sometimes it's a community agency, sometimes it's government folks who are the primary point of contact," he said.

Partnerships and long-term solutions

Smee emphasized they aren't necessarily looking to set up a Choices for Youth facility in six towns. Their presence cold come in the form of training for people already working with at-risk youth, or helping existing organizations.

Ultimately, the organization wants to move beyond emergency supports with young people and look toward providing longer-term solutions such as business development initiatives and family reconnection services.

"We really want, when possible, to prevent young people from winding up, for example, in the shelter that we operate here," he said. "If we can help a young person in some place outside of St. John's before they get to the point that they need that service, that will put them on a better track and it conserves resources here as well."

With files from the St. John's Morning Show