I worked at Shout Clinic for seven years in the 1990s. Shout Clinic is a health centre for street youth in Toronto. My time there was amazing. It was an exciting place to work. The staff were incredible and, most importantly, the young people I met - who were homeless - changed the way I view the world. I don’t know how I would react if I ever became homeless, but I do hope that I would be as courageous as those young people.
One of my roles at Shout Clinic was to do “street outreach”, something we did with another great organization called Youthlink. This involved making contact with homeless youth, on their own turf – the streets of Toronto. We met with young people who we knew for years as well as with those who were new in town or loosely connected to services or organizations. At that time, street youth could usually be found sitting in doorways along Yonge Street, in small parkettes, and sometimes on street corners. Some young people were engaged in money making activities such as panhandling, while others – both male and female – were involved in street prostitution. Others still were just “hanging around” with friends and minding their own business for the most part.
I often went on “street walks”, as we called it, with Sam, a large blond haired man who - in his very sympathetic way - had a real knack for making honest and respectful connections with the young people we met. We brought a backpack that contained food, harm reduction materials (syringes for needle exchange, condoms, etc.), pamphlets and resources. We typically approached young people who we suspected to be homeless with caution, mindful of the fact that the streets were their living room, in a sense, and we were guests in their space. We introduced ourselves and the organization we worked with, and asked if we could speak with them. If they indicated “yes”, we typically crouched down and spoke with them on an eye-to-eye level as opposed to towering above them. We asked how things were going in order to get to know them, and to build trust. A key belief we had was that if you treat people with respect, that respect comes back to you.
If they were comfortable speaking with us, we explored what their needs were. They would rarely, if ever, refuse food because they were almost always hungry. Because I worked at Shout Clinic, they often asked questions regarding an ailment or other health concern. Although I offered any support I could, I recommended that they go to Shout Clinic because I am not a doctor or nurse. Many were surprised to learn that they could go to Shout Clinic without a health card.
Located in an old mansion in downtown Toronto, Shout Clinic was staffed by doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and a range of social service providers. On Tuesday mornings (Tuesday is when I did street outreach) we had our staff meetings in the basement. I will always remember one morning in particular. From the room in the basement, we noticed people walking by the small windows near the top of the wall. This was unusual because that side of our building did not face any public walkway. Although we saw the odd squirrel, no people ever passed by. To add to the intrigue, the legs we saw walking by were clad in black pants with a red stripe. It was police officer.
Later that morning we found out what was going on. To the shock of the staff, we learned that there was a triple murder in Toronto. Three people identified as “prostitutes” had been brutally beaten and stabbed in different parts of Toronto. One body was found in the stairwell of a high-rise apartment building located directly behind Shout Clinic.
As the day went on, the news got worse. The young person who was murdered was a transgendered youth, a client of Shout Clinic. Her name was Danielle (she was born David), and many of the clinical staff knew her quite well. At Shout, we knew that transgendered youth faced some of the most difficult times on the streets. In addition to the challenges all homeless youth face – hunger, lack of income, difficulty getting housing, dealing with loss of family and community – young people who were transgendered faced the additional challenge of identity work. They struggle to understand who they are in a world that is not sympathetic - and is often hostile - toward the transgendered. They not only face discrimination in obtaining housing and work, but also have barriers to accessing services designed for the homeless. Fortunately, Shout Clinic was one of a few services for homeless youth in Toronto, at that time, (others are SOS and Youthlink) which made a point of working with such young people in a respectful way.
In preparing to do a street walk that night, I spoke with Sam and my colleagues at Shout about the grieving process. I suspected that many of the young people Sam and I would meet that evening also knew Danielle, and may have been close friends. This was not work I was well prepared for. Some staff members at Shout Clinic were excellent counselors, but I was pretty nervous. I didn’t know what support I could offer young people in such circumstances. Growing up in Calgary, I hadn’t really experienced many losses. My grandfather died when I was 18, but that was a different kind of loss. It is one thing to experience the death of someone you love who is much older than you. It is quite another to know someone your own age who has died, particularly, I think, if you are quite vulnerable yourself.
Sam and I left for our street walk at about 6:30 that night. We headed to Yonge Street to grab a coffee, but before we reached the shop we encountered a group of four homeless youth on a corner near Yonge and Grosvenor Street. We said “hello” to the two young women and two young men and asked them how they were doing. They began talking about the events of the day. As we suspected, the murders were big news and occupied much of their attention. They all knew Danielle and spoke fondly of her. It was clear that they felt intense shock, dismay and worry.
One of the young women named Marie said, “This is the sixth person I have known who has died since I’ve been on the streets,” as she spoke about how Danielle’s murder affected her,
Gary, who was about 17 added, “Yeah, I think I’ve known four.” He was unsure of exactly how many of his friends had died.
Sam and I stayed with them for a while, offering what comfort we could. Incredibly, they all seemed pretty well-versed on the stages of grieving. Still, as we walked away, it didn’t feel good to leave them there alone, knowing that these young people were going through this without the support of family. All they had was each other.
This hit me hard. I realized that these people, at such a young age, were mourning the loss of a friend who they very clearly cherished. And they were remembering, mourning and attempting to deal with a series of losses that were intimately connected to their experience of homelessness. I’ll never forget this.
When we think of homeless youth, we typically think of many things, depending on our experiences and our viewpoints. The thing that stands out for me is the degree to which, for young people, homelessness is defined in terms of loss. When young people wind up on the streets, they are leaving their families. Often, because of the lack of services in suburbs and smaller communities, they are also leaving their schools, neighbours, peer groups and communities. They move to cities with the hope that shelters and services will give them the support they need to move on with their lives.
Once on the streets, life is hard. Many young people struggle. Some don’t make it. In my time at Shout, we knew young people who died in accidents. Some passed away from illnesses, including AIDS. And others died by their own hand. The young people that survive deal with the intense horror of losing their friends, in addition to dealing with the challenges of adolescence and street life. These losses must highlight their own vulnerability as they struggle with their own compromised health and increased risk of criminal victimization.
Understanding homelessness in terms of loss also taught me another thing - young people who are homeless are extremely strong. While the picture I have painted above does highlight a darker and more challenging side of working with a vulnerable population, the brighter side is that these young people have so much to teach us. Their sense of humor, their cleverness, and their ability to move forward was inspiring. If you ask young people on the streets if they like to write, invariably they will reach in their pocket and pull out a poem or a story they’ve written. Most have dreams and visions of where they want to be. They struggle, but they continue on against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Working with street youth over the years has given me the opportunity to witness the evolving lives of many young people. Some have had successes with moving off the streets. I know one young woman who was homeless for years but eventually went to university and got a degree in Sociology. She has now finished nursing school and has a job in Southern Ontario. I know another young man who would walk into Shout Clinic carrying books by Carl Jung or Homer. He left school in grade 8 when he became homeless but eventually got his high school equivalency and completed a degree in political science at York University. He now works in social services and I still keep in touch with him.
When national magazines put politicians or sports stars on the cover, celebrating them as “Important Canadians” or “Man or Woman of the Year”, it makes me wonder what exactly we value, and what we stand for. I know who the real heroes are in Canada. They are the young people I met when I worked at Shout. I have never been homeless, but if I ever was I would want to have half the courage of these young people. They continue to inspire me.