By the time he was 17 years old, Nigel had been in jail three times for dealing drugs. He grew up in a troubled neighbourhood with his brother and their single mother who struggled with alcoholism. With little structure and support at home, he looked to his peers for lessons on how to survive.
When the landlord threatened to evict all of them unless he left, he chose to leave home for his family’s sake. He became homeless and at risk of being pulled even further into a dangerous life of crime and violence.
“You’re living every day not knowing what’s going to happen…if you’re going to live, if you’re going to die,” Nigel explains steadily. “I grew up with a lot of people who died…in front of me.”
“I was getting positive reinforcement from negative people,” the soft-spoken Nigel recalls, speaking of his former self with the contemplative delicacy of a caring parent. Although he never abused drugs himself, he fell into selling them at a very young age. He felt he would be an outcast if he did not—a chilling prospect for a boy with no one but his friends to rely on.
Going to jail for the first time was the scariest moment of his life. “All the ideas you have of what jail is going to be like go through your head in a split second, so I was terrified,” shares Nigel. “It kind of hardens you,” he adds quietly.
Earnest and thoughtful, with a touch of nervous vulnerability, Nigel’s gentle manner today is in poignant contrast to the hardened lifestyle he once led. Our staff remembers what he was like when he first arrived. Angry and closed, he was a tough kid who no one could touch. But there was something different about him that caught their attention.
Staff observed that, even though Nigel presented a chilly front, he didn’t seem to want to get into trouble with other kids in the house. He appeared to have grown weary of conflict and preferred to be alone with his thoughts or a good book. He took staff guidance calmly and was self-reflective.
Despite having been in prison, Nigel reveals that he was nearly as apprehensive about coming to Covenant House. He was afraid to leave everything he knew. He felt completely alone and worried about being judged by everyone. He didn’t know who he was anymore.
Nigel lived with us in our shelter for two years. Through this time, he slowly began to open up to youth workers and their message that he was worth something more—that he could redefine himself if he put in the effort.
“Two years of being homeless is a really frightening situation. It really makes you think about life and what the future is going to be like,” Nigel shares. Finally, he was ready for change.
“I had a moment of realization that there are people out there who are going to help you. When you get that type of help and you’ve never had it in your life, you kind of change,” Nigel says, his tone warming with the memory. “You tell yourself that you don’t have to be angry at the world anymore. And, you can have a positive impact on someone else’s life. That’s what they teach you here, because that’s the type of people they are. It rubs off on you.”
Along with coaching from youth workers and social workers in our shelter program, Nigel received a lot of support from our Job Centre. He worked for a grocery chain and retail store to build his resume. When he left Covenant House, he moved back in with his mom for awhile and helped her into recovery.
After staying at Covenant House, Nigel has developed a different perspective about his mother’s alcoholism. “I had a better understanding of how to deal with it and how to cope with it. If I needed to talk to someone, I could always come here and do that,” he says. “Covenant House taught me to be a more understanding person to everyone…people who are struggling with drugs, or identity…whatever it may be.”
One day, Nigel came back to visit with staff and told them he had a special surprise. It was an acceptance letter to university. One of our staff framed a copy and hung it on her office wall. It was one of the proudest moments of his life.
Today, Nigel attends university as a third-year English literature major. He has his own apartment and has a part-time job in mall security. He works hard to lead by example for his little brother. He believes his life right now is the best it has ever been. Nigel is still exploring what he would like to do, but he is thinking of becoming an elementary school teacher. “High school kids are a bit too rough for me!” he jokes with a knowing smile.
When asked the main lesson he has learned from his experience at Covenant House, Nigel doesn’t hesitate: “Strength. Covenant House has given me strength…to not be afraid of what life throws at me, to be a more confident person, and to know I can grow to be a better person.”