Homeless youth: Whitehorse’s hidden shame

Mayor Bev Buckway was hanging out with a mob of homeless kids on Main Street on Friday night. Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell and NDP leader Todd…

Mayor Bev Buckway was hanging out with a mob of homeless kids on Main Street on Friday night.

Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell and NDP leader Todd Hardy were also part of the gang.

Yukon Party representatives didn’t show.

“We’re staying here until 5 a.m.,” said Sean Jones.

The 13-year-old was holding a sign that said, “I just want a warm bed.”

“It’s probably going to be cold,” he added.

It was 6 p.m. and the wind was already chilling.

The group was camped in front of the Elijah Smith building to raise awareness about youth homelessness in the city.

Instead of cans of spray paint and skateboards, the youth were holding hand-painted placards.

The kids who are downtown stealing and spray painting often don’t have a place to stay, said Jones.

“What is a kid thinking who’s out for a night, cold and hungry?”

If there was an emergency shelter for youth, stealing and vandalism would mostly disappear, he said.

“But right now, if a kid is cold and starving he has nowhere to go in Whitehorse — at the Salvation Army you have to be over 18.”

Jones knows from experience.

When “dad starts drinking whiskey,” Jones heads out.

Tory Steele has lots of friends like Jones.

“They don’t want to go home because the family’s not stable,” said the 14-year-old youth.

“There’s violence, drugs and alcohol — it’s not a nice place to be or spend the night.”

Usually, the kids crash on friends’ couches, but if there’s nothing available, they end up in caves at the clay cliffs, said Steele.

“The youngest kids I know sleeping outside are 13.”

Anyone who has walked down Main Street at 3 a.m. knows there’s a problem, said Lelainia Harvey.

“There are a lot of kids out here who are cold.”

Although she’s not homeless herself, the 15-year-old was planning to spend the night on the street with the youth to offer support.

Youth Coalition member Rachel Parks was also in for the long haul.

“I’m here for the majority of the night,” she said.

“But I’m not as tough as the youth.”

Parks, who works at Bringing Youth Toward Equality, has had kids come into her office in the morning asking for something warm to drink.

“They’ve been out walking all night,” she said.

The idea of spending a night on Main Street came from the youth.

“They said, why not take everyone who’s questioning the need for a youth shelter outside for a night,” said Parks.

“Then there wouldn’t be any question where the money is coming from — they’d find it.”

Buckway sent out an invitation.

“I asked all the elected people in Whitehorse and in government to come with me tonight,” she said.

“We all have to work together on this.”

Buckway remembers when addressing homelessness was a top priority in Whitehorse.

“Now, there are more people worried about greenspace than about those who don’t have a home to go to,” she said.

“We can talk all we want about how to sustain greenspaces,” added Mitchell.

“But if we can’t sustain our youth, the community is not sustainable.”

During Premier Dennis Fentie’s community tour, Social Services Minister Brad Cathers was questioned about youth homelessness.

“Theoretically, there’s a group of youth who are slipping through the cracks,” he said.

But existing programs should be addressing it, said Cathers, noting group homes, counselling services and social assistance.

Before Cathers’ department will fund a youth shelter, it plans to count the number of homeless youth to properly assess the problem, said Youth Coalition member Dave Prodan.

That means funding won’t come through until spring, at the earliest.

“There should be no debate about whether the kids are real — talk to them and they’ll tell you they are real,” said Mitchell.

“There are kids out on the street and kids couch-surfing and I’m offended the government wants to do an accurate count. It’s not like caribou where you fly over and take pictures from an airplane.”

With a surplus budget of just under $100 million, it’s not a question of whether the government can afford to fund a shelter, he added.

“It’s just, do we have the heart and the commitment to do it?”

It’s not a partisan issue, said Mitchell.

“I stood up in the legislature 10 years ago and volunteered to build a damn shelter if they’d find the money,” said Hardy.

“Every level of government should be involved and it’s a disgrace that nothing has happened.”

Flanked by NDP MLA John Edzerza, Hardy shook his head.

“I’ve been raising the issue forever, and it makes me wonder why I even bother in politics if I can’t make a change,” he said.

Bluefeather Youth Centre executive director Vicki Durrant did not attend the gathering.

“I don’t like protests,” she said.

“I think there are better ways to come to agreements.

“It comes down to the government making a decision — that’s what needs to be done.”

Durrant was surprised by Cathers’ remarks about youth falling through the cracks.

“A house with that many cracks in it should be condemned,” she said.

“There’s something wrong with the system.”

Durrant and the Youth Coalition have not been working together.

“The biggest division was they didn’t want First Nations playing a leading role,” she said.

First Nations need to be involved, because the majority of homeless youth are native, said Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill on Monday morning.

“There’s First Nations organizations that could be responsible for assisting with the housing that are taking a role, but need more support,” he said, citing Skookum Jim Friendship Centre’s interest in starting up a shelter.

“The economy is good — the Yukon’s moving forward,” he said.

“Now let’s start assisting the people.

“It’s time to address the social agenda.”

There are definitely more than a few kids falling through the cracks, he added.

“All you have to do is take a drive downtown and go talk to them, and to the people doing the work, and you’ll see it’s more than just a few kids.”

Everyone needs to start working together, he said, mentioning that the Council of Yukon First Nations now has a member working with the Youth Coalition.

The youth know it’s an ongoing issue, said CARES executive director Kevin Barr, who joined Friday’s sit-in.

“It’s society’s responsibility to protect the youth — we’ve been speaking out for years, so how come there’s no action?”

More parents should be speaking out, added Barr.

“If that was our child, we wouldn’t allow that to happen.”

It’s great the youth initiated the sit-in, said Many Rivers Counselling and Support Service executive director Marilyn Wolovick, standing in the cold.

“It says, ‘Wake up, Whitehorse — look around and notice us.’”

At 6 p.m. the group of 10 to 15 youth cleared out, leaving the politicians and service providers with the placards.

Dinner was ready at the youth centre, said Boys and Girls Club program director Dave Blottner.

“I told them to go get some warm food.”

Every night, Blottner turns away youth begging to sleep on the centre’s couches.

“We just don’t want to have to say no anymore,” said Parks.

All night, a group of 10 to 15 youth and supporters sat on the steps of Elijah Smith.

It was a new experience for some of the service providers and politicians.

But for many of the youth, it just meant more company than usual.