Critics jumped gun, says youth shelter director

Critics of a new homeless shelter pilot project spoke too soon, says the project director. Community and social justice activists criticized the…

Critics of a new homeless shelter pilot project spoke too soon, says the project director.

Community and social justice activists criticized the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre-run project for underestimating the need for a shelter.

Many said the youth wouldn’t trust a government-run project and would not use the service.

“Those criticisms started before the project got off the ground and we’re finding that the youth are self-referring and calling in,” said the centre’s executive director, Michelle Kolla.

Safe beds were used by six youth for a total of 17 nights to date, some using the beds for a night while others used them for consecutive nights until long-term accommodations could be found.

The centre has responded to 32 requests for service and referrals for 15 individuals.

First Nations youth accounted for 87 per cent of those using services through the project.

It’s an accurate portrait of youth homelessness in Whitehorse, said Kolla.

“We’re out in the community, we’re going to the locations the youth are at, we’ve had kids take the posters to school so we’re getting the information out there,” she said.

“We are having a number of youth self-refer themselves or call in. Their parents are calling in and referring as well as other organizations in town that may have youth come in needing help.”

The project started in January and runs until May 31 with a budget of $191,000.

A crisis line is staffed daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and trained staff visit youth organizations in Whitehorse to work with young people.

So far, the project has demonstrated a need for a permanent shelter, said Kolla.

The project’s success will be measured by use and the kind of help youth request, she added.

“But what isn’t known is what exactly the need is and that’s what we’re working to determine,” said Kolla.

Once that information is gathered, the project co-ordinators will have an idea of what kind of shelter is needed.

“We wanted to see how many youth were out there, what are the demographics, what services they require and what percentage are First Nation youth,” said Kolla.

A report will be written for the government by centre staff after the program ends in May.

The government will decide if the final report is made public.

“We’re trying to be open and transparent as we can and to make sure that everyone who has an interest in it has a knowledge of it,” said Kolla.

Most of the youth are using the family support services offered by Skookum.

An established program, the support services are also part of the pilot project and employed when youth request help finding independent shelter or working with family members.

Six of the youth were between the ages of 13-15, seven were 17-21 and two were between 25-34.

Two thirds of the requests were from the organizations or the on-call social workers.

Eight youth called for assistance and two parents requested help.

There are several different places housing the safe beds and there are enough beds to handle all the requests for help, said Kolla.

All but one youth in the pilot project have found long-term housing or are back with their families, said Kolla.

“The ultimate goal (of the project) is to connect them back with their families and to look at getting them into something permanent,” said Kolla.

“But it’s also to provide after-care for them because it’s not just about finding a place to sleep but also having services there and family support services.”

Only 30 per cent of the $191,000, or about $57,300, has been spent.

The project will probably be well under budget with six weeks left to go, said Kolla.

Information provided by Yukon Health officials has overstated the salary budget, she added.

Half of the money spent so far, about $26,000 has gone to wages for two full-time and five part-time staff.

Referring to documents held by the government, Health officials said $11,000 had been budgeted for monthly salaries.

“(The numbers) didn’t come from the friendship centre,” said Kolla.

Because of the large percentage of First Nation youth using the services, First Nation leadership should eventually be involved in finding a long-term solution, said Kolla.

“It’s a large demographic and they need to be involved to look at what we’re finding in the community and what they would like to see,” she said.

The Chill Zone, the Salvation Army, Blue Feather Youth Centre, Many Rivers, Boys and Girls Club, the Outreach Van, Sun Dog Retreat and the Yukon government assist the centre in finding troubled youth.

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