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Report calls for new integrated action plan on youth homelessness

06/01/2015 09:57 EDT | Updated 06/01/2016 05:59 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Major milestones such as turning 16 weren't happy occasions for Jessica Wall.

They were a source of anxious dread that she recalled with moving clarity at a packed forum Monday in St. John's, N.L., on how to end youth homelessness.

"My 16th birthday, I did a lot of crying because I didn't know what system I was going to go in next," said Wall, now 22, who lived in 16 different foster homes after her mom died when she was four.

Her father, who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, lost custody when she was 11.

"Being in the system for so long and then you age out, it's kind of like you're leaving your family behind."

Wall now serves on the youth leadership council of Choices for Youth, an outreach group that released Monday a new report "Towards a Solution."

It calls for a succinct and integrated action plan to end youth homelessness in the province.

Wall would like to see a much smoother transition between systems that change as youth age, along with one-stop access to housing, mental health, addiction, education and income supports.

Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, said a much more streamlined focus on young people aged 16 to 24 is badly needed. Successive reports and good intentions have not stemmed a growing problem, he said in an interview.

"Last year we served over 1,000 young people. This is not a large city, but yet we have a growing number of young people either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. So the stakes are pretty high."

The report cites a 2012 study of St. John's shelter statistics. It found youth aged 16 to 24 comprised 30 per cent of the city's emergency shelter population, 10 per cent higher than the national average.

Pollett said kids as young as 16 too often wind up on their own in dodgy housing.

They have to fear their door will be kicked in as they sleep, or their belongings ripped off, he told the forum attended by politicians of every stripe.

"We cannot simply take an adult approach and apply it to youth," he said. "It's a travesty, and it cannot continue."

Pollett said the report is part of a growing movement across Canada to better deal with complex addiction, mental health and housing issues.

The province can make the choice now for a better approach that will prevent harm and higher costs down the road, he stressed.

"We need solutions that are reflective of the lives of young people," he said. "Nobody enjoys being homeless."

Listening was Sandy Collins, the minister responsible for child, youth and family services. He later said the Progressive Conservative government has talked a lot about improvements since the department was revamped in recent years.

"But I think there is huge opportunity to make further enhancements," he said in an interview.

Collins said he has seen too many teens in care who, at 16, are on the street if they don't voluntarily stay in provincial programs.

"We have to have a default plan for them to fall back on. Otherwise, we're going to be looking at them in the justice system or something worse."

Wall is now working two jobs and hopes to start school in September toward a career helping children and teens with addictions. She told the forum it's important not to judge, but to offer whatever support a person in need can accept or handle.

"They have an addiction for a reason," Wall said. "They're trying to cope with something."

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