Aging out: First Nations youth navigates life on his own after growing up in foster care
Many youth age out of care without the life skills they need to succeed
For Troy Bird, turning 18 wasn't nearly as happy an occasion as it is for most young adults. For him, it was terrifying.
Bird remembers being so scared of his 18th birthday that he would harm himself in his sleep. He would wake up in the mornings with scratch marks or black eyes, sometimes with blood on his pillow, and once he thinks he managed to break his nose.
He was one of the estimated 11,000 children and youth in the care of the Manitoba child welfare system, close to 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous.
At 18, the province's guardianship is terminated. Ready or not, young adults aging out of care are expected to start living on their own.
His foster mother at the time took him to get evaluated at the psychiatric unit at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre. The psychiatrists told him the self harm might have been brought on by the fear of having to move out.
"I was stressed out," he said. "I didn't want to leave [my foster mother's] house. I loved her so much."
2 foster families, a group home and a hotel
Bird's experience with the child welfare system began when he was 10 months old.
He became a permanent ward of the state and lived with his first foster family until he was nine. When things didn't work out at that home, family services had to find a temporary place for him to live. They settled with the former Day's Inn hotel in Winnipeg.
Troy ended up living in that hotel for a full year.
In 2015, the Manitoba government banned child welfare agencies from using hotels as lodging for children in care, after a girl was seriously assaulted by another youth in care.
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Bird said he enjoyed living in a hotel. He had a chance to go to the nearby buffet every weekend and learned how to swim at the hotel pool.
After the stay at the hotel, he was moved to a group home where he stayed till he was 13. Then he eventually moved into what would be his last foster home.
Compared to the lives of other children in foster care, Bird had stability in his living experiences. He describes the time spent at his last foster home as the best years of his life.
He graduated high school at Dakota Collegiate and was proud to get his diploma.
"I'll never forget my grad," said Bird. "My first foster mother was there, my second foster mother was there, my social worker was there."
Placed in transitional housing
But it wasn't long after graduation that Bird had to leave his last foster home for good.
After the self-harming incidents, Bird had to wait in the psychiatric ward because he was told he couldn't go back to his foster home. The hospital asked Manitoba Child and Family Services to find a place for the young man to live.
He was placed in a transitional housing block, the Red Road Lodge, which houses people recovering from addictions and mental health issues and provides services to the homeless.
"CFS had to find the best place. The best place was Red Road Lodge," he said. "I know it wasn't the best place, but they had to do what they could, right?"
Although he no longer had a foster parent, Bird was offered an extension of care by the child welfare agency — financial support until the age of 21.
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Living on his own meant that Bird had to learn how to survive.
"Sometimes if I didn't have the money for groceries, I wouldn't eat for two days," said Bird.
He would occasionally end up going to eat at the nearby Siloam Mission, a resource used by people struggling with homelessness.
At his last foster home, he says his foster mom didn't let him touch the stove, let alone teach him how to cook. A friend he met at the Red Road Lodge, who became like a big sister to Bird, taught him how to cook some meals, how to budget his money, and shop for groceries.
Looking for work
Today, Bird is 21 and living by himself in Winnipeg's North End. He is getting by on social assistance but has been actively looking for work for the last couple of years.
"I've applied for all kinds of stuff — labour stuff, working at retail stores, clerking, like stocking shelves," he said.
One of the places that he uses to try and find employment is the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities (SMD). Bird was born with FASD and autism, and struggles with extreme anxiety. Once a week he goes to SMD, where they go through online job banks with him, help him with resumes and coach him in interview techniques.
Bird remains optimistic about finding full-time employment and living the adult life.
"I know that I'm going to do well," he said. "I like to feel ready for any situation, whether it's bad or good."
This story is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.
with files from Vic Savino