Every kid who comes to us has a personal story that includes grief and heartbreak. Loss and trauma are what set them on a path to homelessness, and the feeling of shame and helplessness to rise above it can keep them from moving forward.
For many of our youth, their home may have been a source of pain, but if it is safe to do so, mending family ties can also be powerfully healing.
Cara was 18 years old and pregnant when she first came to us. She had spent some time out west and in a small Ontario town living with each of her divorced parents, but when tensions mounted, she left and found her way to Toronto.
Joanne, one of our social workers, met with Cara’s mother a few times and spoke with her dad over the phone. She explained to them the challenges that Cara was facing and the kind of help she would need during her pregnancy. Cara returned to her mother’s home and she was able to give her the support she needed. When her baby daughter was adopted, Cara felt the loss keenly, but she now has family around her to care for her. Cara still checks in regularly with Joanne for guidance.
When our social workers meet with youth for counselling, they always guide them towards a discussion of the significant people in their lives. Counselling to begin to understand complex emotions about their family can be crucial for youth to build a healthy life of their own.
Many youth are unable to rekindle relationships with family members while they are here because the wounds run too deep, but others tell us that they would like our help to talk through challenges with a parent or other family member. For some of our youth, reconnecting with family members is the best way for them to find the strength to rebuild.
“They are only here with us for a short time,” says Joanne. “We want to help them build on relationships that are healthy.” About 70 percent of homeless youth report that they have experienced abuse or neglect at home, but we only know what the youth will share with us. With each youth, our social workers assess whether they are closing up when the topic of family comes up or whether they are open to reconnecting. Sometimes that means contacting the parent or family member, with the youth’s permission, to negotiate new ways of interacting with their child that will allow them to maintain a connection.
Ajay grew up in a traditional family and his parents had high expectations for him. When he experienced his first psychotic episode, the family was shattered. Ajay’s temper could be violent and the parents did not know what to do. They knew very little about mental health and did not know what to expect. When Ajay came to us, Joanne spoke with his care providers at our health clinic and at other agencies to ensure he was getting the help he needed. She also spent a lot of time with the parents educating them about his challenges and the best ways for them to support him. She gave them reassurances that he was in a safe place and that he was getting excellent care from us and our community partners.
It is critically important for some of our younger youth to reconnect with a supportive adult, if possible, because they are usually not ready to live on their own when they leave us. The youth may wish to reach out to an aunt, a grandparent or an older sibling. If moving back home is a safe and reasonable option, we can help establish expectations for both the parent or family member and the youth.
“Our youth are all so unique and diverse,” shares Joanne. “One of the first things I ask youth is, ‘Who is going to help carry you when you leave us?’” All of us need family or community of some kind, and our youth are at a point in their lives where unconditional love and support are necessary for them to thrive.