Youth Homelessness is a major issue in Greater Saint John, and in New Brunswick. Several years ago, the Community Council on Homelessness (then the Greater Saint John Homelessness Steering Committee) formed a working group on youth homelessness which was the beginning of the Safe Harbour project. Safe Harbour is now providing a safe, stable place to live for youth in our community.
For more information about Safe Harbour or Youth Homelessness, visit http://www.safeharboursj.ca
Humans of Saint John Portrait of Youth Homelessness
“I ran away from my home in Saint John because I was having trouble at home. There was no youth shelter in Saint John, so I went to another city and stayed with some people there. I was working for a tourism company, and was staying with friends. It was ok at first but things started to break down and one day while I was at work I got a text saying I couldn’t go back. We were having a theme day at work where everyone got dressed up, so all that I had was a dress, the kind of dress you would wear to a party. Luckily that city did have a youth shelter but they said that there are no beds available. Eventually a bed did clear up and I could stay there for the night. I had to go to work the next morning, but I didn’t have any clothing other than the dress I was wearing. They gave me clothing and a pair of shoes. They felt like the nicest pair of shoes I’d ever owned in my life. I stayed at the shelter for two months, and then school started. I couldn’t get into the school system there, and the boyfriend that I was with at the time was physically abusing me. I was really only with him for survival. I called my Dad crying and I explained my situation to him. He came and picked me up and brought me back to Saint John. I love my family and was grateful they took me back, but the issues I had still hadn’t been resolved and not long after I got back I moved out again. I couch surfed with friends a lot and tried to make it work. I got back into my old high school and they were really supportive. They really went out of their way to get me connected to the services I needed. I am so thankful for the teachers there and especially my guidance counsellor. One of the programs they helped me get into is a subsidized housing program for students. They advocated for me and helped me do the things I was too young to do on my own. Now I live in an apartment by myself. It was the first time that I’ve been able to stay in school for a whole year in a long time. It is still never really easy but I know I am going to graduate and plan to go to university.”
“Why are these shoes so important to you?”
“To me they still are the nicest pair I’ve owned. I’ve refused to part with them no matter how beaten they get because I’ve been wearing them ever since the day I got them. They serve as a constant reminder of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.”
“Why is it important to have a youth shelter in Saint John?”
“Because we need one. I’ve been supporting the youth shelter project as much as I can since I heard about it. A lot of people don’t realize how many homeless teens there are in Saint John. There’s such a thing as hidden homelessness. People couch surf, or they sleep in the woods, and I’ve been through that. If there hadn’t been a youth shelter in that other city, I’d probably be dead. We have programs for elderly people, single parents, battered women, but there’s not really any awareness about teen homelessness. It’s not that people don’t care, a lot of people just don’t realize the severity of youth homelessness in Saint John.”
“I never knew my father, and my mom had me as a teenager, but she met a nice guy when I was a toddler, and he was basically my Dad. My parents split when I started high school and my Mom went out west with my other siblings. I stayed here with my Dad to go to school, and we moved to a neighbourhood that wasn’t exactly the best. Not having a mother figure in my life really affected me in high school. I ended up getting into drugs, and I got into some trouble. I was lucky, because I actually graduated. A lot of my friends ended up passing away or went to prison. I had a few jobs here and there, but my addiction escalated very quickly. A lot of people don’t understand addiction, especially if they’ve never gone through it. They expect you to just quit and move on with your life, and if people haven’t experienced it, they don’t realize that it’s not that easy. I was living in an apartment and I knew that I couldn’t afford rent. I remember walking over to my fridge, opening it up and seeing nothing but an empty bottle of ketchup. It was a horrible feeling. I was kicked out of my apartment and I was homeless for two weeks. I had also become a father at this point. I decided that I needed to be there for my child, I wanted to watch my kid grow up. I decided that it was time for me to go to rehab and get cleaned up. When I came back to Saint John, I was living with my grandparents. I knew that I needed to start from scratch and rebuild my new life. I worked very hard to get what I have now. I got into a construction job where I worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. I got an apartment, I got nice things, and I’m planning on going to school. Cooking is my passion, and I am going to get into cooking school to become a chef. Things have been going well, and I’ve worked very hard for what I have. The reason my full fridge means so much to me is that it’s the first time that I’ve had something like this on my own. It makes me very proud.”
“Why is it important to have a youth shelter in Saint John?”
“Because people are often focused on helping little kids, but they don’t realize how many homeless teens there are. There are not even many places for adults to stay around here. When I was homeless in the winter I would just stay in the library until it closed, then I’d need to find somewhere to stay. If I could have stayed at a youth shelter, it would have made things a lot easier.”
“My father left the family when I was little. My siblings and I lived with my mother until she went to jail a few years later, and then we went into foster care. They gave us back when she got out but she was different. She was mentally abusive at first, and then she became physically abusive. One day she lifted me off of the floor by my throat and started punching me in the face. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left. I was dating this guy at the time. He was like my safeguard. Whenever he was around, my mother wouldn’t hit me so I always wanted him around. The day that I decided I couldn’t live with my mother anymore, I packed two pairs of jeans, two t-shirts and I went to school. From school I went to his house and began living with his family. I lived at his house the whole school year. It was difficult to see my siblings at school every day, but it was better than being abused every day.”
“Were your siblings abused too?”
“Yes. They are not ready to come out about it, they still live with my mother, but it will all come out eventually.”
“What happened after living with your boyfriend?”
“He started to change not long after I moved in with him. When I started living with him it felt nice to have someone to take care of me but soon he started to control my life. I tried to figure out a way that I could get out, but he was my only lifeline. If I left him, I would have had nowhere to go.”
“If there was a youth shelter in Saint John, would you have left?”
“Yes. It would have been a lot easier. A lot easier.” She looks down at her knees and there is a long pause.
“Instead I found my dad, who was living in another province. I wanted him in my life. I wanted to be a family so I convinced my boyfriend to go there with me. I found a place to stay down the street from him with my boyfriend but my Dad still didn’t want to see me. That’s when I realized that I had nothing. When your family doesn’t even want you, who do you go to? At this point my boyfriend was physically abusing me. It was scary because he was the only person in my life who would care for me. We returned to Saint John and the physical abuse continued. Eventually he broke up with me, but I still lived with him because I had nowhere else to go. He wanted me to stay because he still wanted control of my life. He wanted my money, he wanted me for sex; there were times when I felt like I was just his property. A few weeks ago I decided I’d had enough, and I went to my youth worker’s office crying. I told them that I had nowhere to go, and they helped me get into a shelter for abused women. I’ve been living there for a week.”
“Why is it important to you to keep a journal?”
“I started keeping a journal when my mom went to jail, and I’ve been writing in one every single day since then. It’s been like a safe haven for me. It is the one constant in my life. I can read journals from a year ago, and it makes me realize just how much I can overcome.”
“Why is it important to you that there is a youth shelter in Saint John?”
“I would have left a long time ago if we had had a youth shelter in Saint John. I wouldn’t have had to go through some of the things that I did if I had had somewhere to go. I’m only at the woman’s shelter for three more weeks. It’s a transition house, so I can be there for about a month, and then I need to figure something else out, or I’m out on the streets. Basically, I can try to find another place to live, or become totally homeless. It’s hard because my only income is social assistance and the youth amount is so low that I couldn’t afford an apartment by myself. I’ve been looking at rooms to rent and even the cheapest ones will leave me with less than $30 a month to live off of after rent. I’m hoping to find a job because I’m scared I won’t be able to keep this life up. Being homeless has taken over my life in every way, it takes all of my energy and I worry all the time. I’m still in school though, I feel good when I’m there. I’m proud I haven’t given up. If there was a youth shelter in Saint John, I would have somewhere safe to go; but for now, who knows.”
Hemmings House, a local TV and film production company, created the following public awareness video about youth homelessness in Saint John.