The smile in the darkness


About Erin

Erin has been a youth worker in our crisis shelter since 2008.

homeless-teenMany of our youth have happy endings to their time in our crisis shelter. However, sometimes it’s a difficult journey to get there. I truly believe that we can never stop hoping for a happy ending for our youth, no matter how bad it gets.

I have a youth that I’ve been working with for almost three years. He was one of the first youth who was assigned to work with me when I started here. I was young, new to the field, unsure of myself, and maybe a little naïve. I was informed by other workers who had met him that he had schizophrenia, he was angry, just out from jail and potentially violent. I was terrified. I remember our first interaction very clearly: he was sleeping on the couch and I had to get him up to meet me for a planning session. I think his first words to me were something along the lines of “screw you.” But we had our meeting and he decided to stay at the shelter and work with me.

I learned a great deal from working with him about just how difficult it is to navigate the system. He had a bail officer to meet, a lawyer to follow up with, court dates to attend, a psychiatrist and a nurse to see, an Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) worker, and a mental health and justice worker. They were scattered all over the city and they all needed phone calls and visits. On top of all that, he was now living at a shelter with rules to follow and workers to check in with. This would be difficult enough to manage alone, but you add to that the fact that he was hearing voices? Next to impossible.

Together we managed to sort out all of his appointments, and I slowly managed to earn his trust. He completed all of his court and legal issues and he began seeing his doctor regularly for medication, so things were going well. We tried a school program, though it was difficult for him to attend regularly and he was not able to complete it. After about a year of living in our crisis shelter, he was able to secure his own place. This was a huge achievement for him and I was incredibly proud. He regularly came to visit me during the next year to tell me how well he was doing; jokingly calling me his mom when I nagged him about attending his appointments and keeping his place clean. He managed for almost a year, but then the death of a friend sent him into a tailspin. His auditory hallucinations got increasingly worse, and he continued to “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol. He began getting involved in illegal activity and not taking his medication. He lost his apartment and has spent the last six months bouncing between jail, hospitals and shelters, his addictions and mental health concerns not allowing him to stay in one place for very long.

Throughout these last few months, he has continued to come to see me, even though sometimes when he visits, he hardly knows me. It breaks my heart to see him this way. I’ve seen the good in him. He’s got so much potential and I know that this life is not what he wanted. I always remind myself of a meeting I had with him and the teachers at his school. I asked him, “What are your goals? What do you want in life?” He replied, “I want what you have. I want a house and a job and a family.” I found that to be powerful in its simplicity and incredibly sad. All this young man wants are the things we often take for granted. They are things that everybody assumes they will have, and he cannot manage to hold onto them.

Despite all of the issues he is dealing with, there is still a thread of connection between us. He knows that when he’s ready, this is the place to come for help. And he knows that no matter what, I’ll be here for him. I see who he really is, I want the best for him, and I believe in his potential. I always will.

As front-line workers we often work with young people who are at their lowest. We support them through their challenges, helping as much as they’ll let us, and as best we can. Many of them have so many obstacles in their way, and have been shaped by so much trauma, that they are challenging to work with. Sometimes we do our very best but we still can’t help a youth. Sometimes we watch the youth that we care about make decisions that we know are going to hurt them. My heart breaks every time, because I know that those youth have good inside them and I am not willing to give up hope in that potential.

We don’t always get happy endings here at the shelter, but I truly believe that we can never stop hoping for one, no matter how bad it gets. The most important part of my job is to never give up on these kids, even if they have given up on themselves, and to be there for them–unconditionally–when they decide they want my support. I’ve learned that I can’t stop the youth I work with from making choices that I don’t agree with and I can’t prevent the unhappy endings. I can, however, be the person in their life who sees the good in them and will never stop believing in their capacity for change. Every single one of our youth has that potential. Maybe they’ll believe it if we do.

5 thoughts on “The smile in the darkness

  1. Hi Erin – we saw your post as we follow Covenant House on Twitter. We felt compelled to respond to your blog post as it embodies the struggles of those we work with and those that work in our sector. We thank you and your colleagues for the amazing work you do at Covenant House. As a fellow social service agency, we are proud to be a part of a circle of services in Toronto that help those that are often vulnerable due to complex social and economic challenges. It is amazing that this youth has somewhere to turn – to you and to your agency. Thank you for the inspiration!

    Your Friends at New Circles Community Services

    • Covenant House Toronto

      Hi Friends at New Circles Community Services, A very warm thank you for this kind note. We will pass it around. We are grateful for community partners like you who believe in the strength and potential of our youth.

  2. Erin I am inspired by you. Really it’s a good effort. I become to be a part of your blog and want to share with my friends. I found a lot of youth in darkness. Your post is very useful for them. thanks.

  3. This is the most touching story I’ve read in a long while. I believe in our youth, they for some reason don’t believe in themselves. Bullies plays a big roll of a person’s life young or old. These young men and women need our help and I know we have the power to succeed even if we only reach a few. You see we have a major problem here on Nova Scotia, bullies. Some of our teens grade 6-9 have not attended school for some time. I know this because my niece has been out of school for almost two years. We don’t have any facilities to house them and nurture them guide them to follow there hearts because that is truly what they want to do. Something is making them afraid to take control of there own lives. That something “bullies”. I really enjoyed your article thanks for a great read.

  4. Thanks for writing this piece. I really enjoyed reading it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>