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An empty youth shelter tug of war

If there are youth in Whitehorse trading sex for shelter, Chris Nash hasn't met them. The emergency youth shelter co-ordinator has been on the job for three and a half years, working for Skookum Jim Friendship Centre.

If there are youth in Whitehorse trading sex for shelter, Chris Nash hasn’t met them.

The emergency youth shelter co-ordinator has been on the job for three and a half years, working for Skookum Jim Friendship Centre.

He’s fielded more than 100 calls from youth with no place to stay.

But since it opened in February 2008, only 34 youth have used the emergency youth shelter at Alcohol and Drug Services.

This year, only four youth have stayed there.

Still, even when it’s empty - which is most nights - two staff are employed full time, in case a youth shows up.

In 2010, their wages totaled $150,000, according to an email from the Health Department.

“Sometimes, if we have a treatment program running, the (youth shelter) staff help out with that,” said Alcohol and Drug Services acting manager Sandy Schmidt.

“Otherwise, they just sit here, or work on their master’s,” she said.

Schmidt wouldn’t discuss whether this was a good use of funds.

“You’d have to direct those questions to (Health spokesperson) Pat Living,” she said.

Offering youth beds at detox is part of the problem, added Schmidt.

“Having worked with youth in the past, I know the location isn’t helpful.”

When Nash and his colleagues bring youth to the emergency shelter, they have to undergo the same screening as detox clients.

They’re searched for weapons, alcohol and drugs, and their intoxication is assessed.

This takes about 10 minutes, after which the youth are led up five flights of stairs to a penthouse apartment with a living room, microwave, snacks, books, a full bathroom and two bedrooms, each with two, clean double beds.

“We give them pajamas, a toothbrush and anything else they might need,” said Schmidt.

They also get a full breakfast before they leave in the morning.

“And we will send food with them if they need it,” said Nash.

Whitehorse Boys and Girls Club executive director Dave Blottner was surprised to learn only four youth had used the shelter this year.

Blottner has referred at least six or seven homeless youth to the emergency shelter.

“But I’ve heard many kids are not keen on heading to detox,” he said.

Ideally, Blottner would like to see a comprehensive youth shelter “in a safe, neutral location, aiding and addressing everyone’s needs.”

Still, if you are out in the cold, or trading sex for shelter, the emergency beds at detox are a great option, he said.

If youth centres in town are seeing kids who are trading sex for shelter, “why aren’t they referring them?” said Nash.

Since November, the Youth of Today Society has referred 15 youth to the emergency shelter, said its executive director, Victoria Durrant.

“But they won’t go.”

It’s the way it’s set up, she said. “It’s not appealing.”

The emergency shelter is open from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily.

“So at 9 a.m., they’re back on the street,” said Durrant.

Shelters like this might work for adults, but youth need more support and guidance, she said.

“You can’t just say, ‘Go, and come back when you need a place to sleep.’”

And trading sex for shelter is not a simple transaction, she said.

“You don’t get a guy saying, ‘Have sex with me and you can sleep here.’

“It’s a process that involves dependence and grooming - you get someone hooked, then give them a bill and they owe you and can’t just leave.”

The kids Durrant referred to the emergency shelter “want a place they can call home,” she said.

Both Blottner and Durrant want to see a youth shelter that is open around the clock with meals, beds and counsellors, to help youth find housing, a job, or get back into school.

Youth could end up staying there for six months to a year, said Durrant.

“Because, once you’re homeless, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed before you get back on your feet.”

Schmidt agrees that it would make more sense to see the emergency shelter at a facility that is youth-friendly and already has youth clientele.

“This is strictly an emergency shelter,” she said.

It’s not much of a life to be asked to leave every morning at 9 a.m., she added.

The emergency youth centre at detox is not perfect, added Nash.

“We know that it’s probably not the most youth-friendly place.

“But we do really care about the youth. And we’d like to know what to do to improve upon this service.

“I don’t know what the answer is.”

Nash and his eight coworkers get $20 an hour for their on-call shifts. During this time, they wait for youth who need a place to stay or just want some advice, to call their cellphones.

When youth do call - on average, once every 10 days - Skookum’s workers try to place the youth with family or friends first.

The emergency shelter is a last resort, said Nash.

And because it is only available for youth ages 17 to 20, many of the youth who call are not eligible to stay.

However, the detox will take youth as young as 16, as long as they come voluntarily, said Schmidt.

“I know there are a lot of youth out there who may not know about the service,” said Blottner.

“But I ask you, how many youth need to use the service before we decide it’s worth keeping?”

Every night, Nash or his coworkers drive around for an hour talking with youth and letting them know about the emergency shelter.

“It feels weird when we don’t have anyone stay for so long,” he said.

“But then we might get three in one week - it’s never a steady flow, it’s always sporadic.”

Although he recognizes it isn’t perfect in its current location and that many youth might not know about the emergency shelter, Nash is not keen on seeing it moved to Angels’ Nest or the Whitehorse Boys and Girls Club, even though a regular group of kids use those facilities.

“There would be security issues,” he said.

“What? Do I need a gun?” said Durrant, who runs Angels’ Nest.

Angels’ Nest has 22 beds that sit empty every night.

For the amount of money that’s being spent on the emergency youth shelter, Angels’ Nest could be up and running, said Durrant.

“And it’s a cozy place, youth feel safe here and what we provide is parental guidance.”

Durrant is working with local First Nations to get her overnight youth shelter up and running.

Government hasn’t supported us, so we will try and do it without government, she said.

Nash isn’t convinced there is a need for an expanded overnight youth shelter.

“Just because people say there is a huge need for a youth centre doesn’t mean there necessarily is,” he said.

“We hear there are youth trading sex for shelter.

“Well, if they’re out there, why aren’t they calling us?”

Contact Genesee Keevil at