02/09/2018 10:22 EST | Updated 02/09/2018 10:22 EST

Homelessness Should Not Also Mean Hopelessness

By Clovis Grant, CEO 360ºkids

One of the saddest things in life is to look into the face of a young person and see no hope. For those who are homeless, too often, this is the expression we encounter when working with them. Despite their struggles, however, I have known many homeless young people who've demonstrated tremendous resiliency to rise above their adversities and go on to achieve success in their lives. But it is not easy. They know that most people believe that they chose this life and their struggles are largely self-inflicted. If only it was that simple.

When I first began working with young people who were homeless, I naively bought into the view that homelessness was caused by a series of bad decisions. Reality soon offered me a completely different, and sobering, picture.

These young people need assistance and yet, so many who are homeless become isolated and forgotten and their needs are often unmet by our bigger social and human services systems.

The reasons for a young person being homeless are varied but there is usually a common thread – breakdown in the family and limited options available.

In the case of a young woman called Melanie, she fled her home in another province and ended up in Toronto because her father was sexually abusing her and her sister, and her mother refused to acknowledge what was taking place. That sense of helplessness resulted in Melanie's ongoing problem with alcohol and, as she openly admits, an explosive temper. Both can be linked to what she had to endure in the family home.

I also remember the case of Suzette who had escaped her home in the Caribbean, where she was being sexually abused, only to find herself living with a family in Toronto who physically abused her. She was forced to live in an emergency shelter for over 2 years while she pleaded her case with immigration officials until she was finally deemed eligible for refugee status.

Neither Melanie nor Suzette chose to be homeless nor do the thousands of other young people who find themselves out on the streets every year.

Just like every other kid, when they lose hope, they become more vulnerable.

The most glaring example, for me, remains a young man in his early 20s called Enrique. When I first met him in 2005 he had been struggling for sometime with mental health issues. The week before he died, he had made several visits to the local psychiatric hospital. On one occasion, he was seen but received no treatment. On a subsequent visit, a staff member accompanied him hoping that their advocacy would help him get more attention. For several hours my colleague urged the hospital staff to provide Enrique with more help, but he was again discharged with no support. Just a few days later, he jumped in front of a subway train and died.

He was suffering, felt alone in his struggles and lost all hope.

Trying to define someone without knowing their background can have grave consequences. These kids are not rebelling against parental authority or a desire to be different.

Most, when you get to the know them, will tell you they wish they had had a different upbringing so that they could have avoided this lifestyle.

Hopelessness can cause severe stress and distress as homeless people feel excluded from society. And for good reason, so many spend holidays alone in a shelter or on the streets; they don't feel welcomed in most public spaces and institutions, and are often blamed for their problems rather than being offered help.

We should never become numb to the reality that these are young people who are like my own, with hopes, dreams, skills and talents - not just occupants in a shelter bed.

I am reminded each time I attend a youth's memorial and see the pain on the faces of their peers or of an estranged family member that these were individuals who were loved and cared about.

And maybe this is the lesson: We need to always remember that those who are homeless are, and will always be, people first who want and deserve the same things we all do, love, care and a home.

Clovis Grant is the Chief Executive Officer at 360°Kids. 360ºkids is a charitable organization helping at-risk youth in the York Region.Clovis will be taking part in the unique fundraising event the 360ºExperience on March 1st. To donate click here