Being unemployed has some perks. For example, I get to spend a lot of time working on my godawful Nanowrimo novel. And I get to go for long walks around the Experimental Farm on these glorious sunny afternoons, and be part of the energy and noise of huge flocks of crows and geese preparing for winter. I’m telling you, it’s strangely thrilling.
And I get to go on the Seeing is Believing tours, visiting organizations that receive funding from the United Way. So far I’ve toured Youville (a school and child care centre for teenage moms), the Loeb Centre (a vocational centre where adults with developmental disabilities work and socialize), and the Youth Services Bureau’s emergency shelter for young women.
I never had a chance during the whole time I was working and donating to United Way to go on these tours and see what my donations were supporting. I assume that some of you are in the same boat, so I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I’ve seen. Today I’ll tell you about the emergency shelter; the others will follow.The emergency shelter for young women is just one of many, many programs and services offered by the Youth Services Bureau. They also provide mental health services, employment services, justice services, and an array of community services to youth in Ottawa. But this emergency shelter for young women is what the United Way supports – fully one-third of the shelter’s budget comes from those of you who donate to the United Way. It’s the only one of its kind in Ottawa.
When I was fifteen years old, which was long before this shelter existed, I left home and never went back. I was scared. I knew so little about the city and the world and my own options. I was a sad, shy girl from a small town and I was afraid to ask anybody for any kind of help.
I was also very, very lucky – somebody stepped in and helped me. She took me into her home and took care of me. She helped me explore my options, and got me connected with the Children’s Aid Society. I became a crown ward of the CAS, which ensured that I had some basic income, and therefore some options, for the next few years. I lived with foster parents until I was seventeen, and then I was out on my own after that.
It scares the pants off me to think of how differently things could have turned out if that young woman hadn’t helped me. I was so small and naive and vulnerable. I don’t think there were any services out there specifically for young girls in my situation.
For a young girl in the same situation now, she would have the Young Women’s Emergency Shelter, with its small bedrooms and shared bathrooms and, most importantly, its youth workers to help her navigate the complicated system so she can become independent. During that incredibly vulnerable period, it’s essential that young girls have a safe place to stay and access to information about their options
There’s a big, bright common area and a series of small bedrooms, each with a bed, a desk, a closet and a window. We peeked inside one of them, and I got a lump in my throat when I saw the meager belongings of the young girl whose room it was: a jacket slung over a chair, a few clothes hanging in the closet, some papers, a ball of orange yarn and a partially knit hat on the desk. It was the knitting that got to me. The fact that she knits. Who is she, this homeless knitting teenager?
The shelter hosts a wide variety of clients, including poor, middle-class, straight, lesbian, trans, addicted, mentally ill, recent immigrant, white and visible minority women. The only things they all have in common is they’re young, female and need somewhere to stay. They range in age from 12 to 21. The average age is 17. Ninety per cent of them have some kind of abuse in their background.
They’re not allowed to stay long in the emergency shelter – typically less than a month. Just long enough to figure out where to go next. Where do they go when they leave? Most qualify for Ontario Works (welfare) and go into the private rental market. Ontario Works allocates them $335 a month for housing costs, which typically means a rooming house, or a low-end shared apartment. They go to school and get part-time jobs. A handful of them go into transitional housing, which is upstairs in the same building as the shelter. They get a bachelor apartment (some of which have their own bathroom). They can still access the services of the shelter if they need to. They can stay there for up to a year.
It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But when you’re a scared kid with no money and nowhere to go, it’s everything.
You can make a donation to the United Way here.