'They changed my life': Regina youth shelter celebrates 5 years

Downtown Browne's is celebrating five years on March 1. The emergency youth shelter was the first of its kind in the province.

Downtown Browne's was province's 1st emergency youth shelter

The concept for Street Culture Project first began in 1996. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Aleesha Henry doesn't know where she would be without the support she has received from staff at Downtown Browne's. 

"I don't even know if I would actually be here at all," the 19-year-old said Tuesday. "I would definitely still be on the street."

Aleesha Henry, 19, stayed at Downtown Browne's twice as a teen, and now she draws on her past experiences to help other youth through her work with Street Culture Project. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Henry was 15 years old when she first walked through the doors at Downtown Browne's, an emergency youth shelter in Regina.

At the time, the teen fought constantly with her mom, and one big argument was the last straw. Henry was no longer welcome in the home, so the family called a social worker.

"She said that I could go to Downtown Browne's, which, at that point, was pretty much my only option."

The trip to the emergency youth shelter wouldn't be her last. 

Project of love

Downtown Browne's is operated by Street Culture Project, an organization that works with Regina's downtown businesses to help street kids, and was the first of its kind in Saskatchewan. It celebrates five years of service on Wednesday. 

It's meant to be a short-term solution to help at-risk and homeless youth get support as they transition to a more stable setting.

Street Culture Project executive director Dustin Browne said the shelter was in the works for a while.

"It was actually a project of love for me for the last 10 years," he said, noting the shelter is just one extension of what Street Culture Project has accomplished in Regina during the past two decades.
Dustin Browne is the executive director at Street Culture Project and says the success of the emergency youth shelter is fantastic. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Browne said the shelter's work has been successful because staff want to be there to help rather than for the paycheque.

More than 1,000 youth have been through the shelter in the past five years, said Browne, and that doesn't count people who use services beyond a bed.

Downtown Browne's also serves meals, provides hygienic products, has a nurse practitioner who is there once a week, and offers mentor support.

Detox on daughter's 1st birthday 

The shelter got Henry onto a "decent path" and she eventually moved out to a group home. 

However, she soon got in with the wrong people and her life became unstable. She got pregnant and had to move into Grace Haven, a home for teen mothers.

"I ended up going right downhill from there and had to give my daughter to my parents," she said.

She had to leave Grace Haven because she no longer had her child, so she transitioned to the YWCA. That stint didn't last long.
Downtown Browne's has 15 beds, a kitchen, a laundry facility, an area for socializing and a secure outdoor space. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

"I ended up on the street for quite a while ... started struggling with some serious addictions issues, being so destructive and going so downhill that my mom eventually got a warrant out for my arrest," she said.

Henry said she was arrested and sent to detox on her daughter's first birthday.

Return to Downtown Browne's

After spending a week in detox, she was brought back to Downtown Browne's. The staff helped her feel less alone.

"They motivated me to just get back on my feet, stay on track," she said.

It wasn't long before she realized she wanted to work for the organization that felt like family.
Participant art adorns the walls inside Downtown Browne's emergency youth shelter. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

"They wouldn't give up on me. They treated me the way that you would expect that we could treat our youth who are struggling."

Now she works with the Street Culture Project.

"They changed my life. They're the reason I can say I am where I am." 

More work to do

Street Culture CEO Kim Sutherland said while he's proud of the work the organization does, he doesn't regard the anniversary as a celebration. 

"These are not adults, these are kids under the age of 18, haven't even finished high school and they're sleeping in alleys. There's something wrong with that. Something wrong with our priorities," Sutherland said on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

He is, however, celebrating his staff members and and the young people whose lives they've helped change. He said many of the people who work with Street Culture were themselves helped by the organization as young people. 

"They're really our most effective staff because they can draw the kids forward from difficult circumstances, because they've lived it, every day," he said. 

It's Sutherland's hope that more funding will ultimately come in to help the young people up front rather than dealing with issues as they arise. 

"Many people think they get into a shelter, we work for a few days and we got them back to school on the road to recovery and they're going to become tax-paying citizens, and that's not the case. Relapse is part of recovery. We see it over and over," he said. 

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition