Victoria's tent city on the lawns of the courthouse on Burdett Avenue.

Youth homelessness an unseen crisis in Victoria

There’s been a lot of attention on the growing amount of homeless people accumulating on the lawns of Victoria’s courthouse.

There’s been a lot of attention on the growing amount of homeless people accumulating on the lawns of Victoria’s courthouse.

Neighbours living in the area continue to deal with an increase in crime. Now police have dedicated two officers to patrol the area six hours a day, seven days a week.

But as the province prepares to take the campers to court again at the end of the month with hopes of shutting tent city down, Mark Muldoon is concerned a bigger homeless crisis continues to be ignored.

According to Muldoon, executive director of Threshold Housing Society, youth homelessness is an unseen crisis in Victoria, but those aged 16 to 24 are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in Canada. The problem, he said, is that many of them are hidden.

“These young people are couch surfing, they are sleeping 10 to an apartment or sleeping in someone’s RV or in parks. They don’t want to be self identified as homeless, they don’t want to be associated with the homeless population,” said Muldoon, noting many homeless youth are trying to finish school or hold down low paying jobs.

“This age group has less resources to bounce back or to even get into the housing market without proper job training or education…I would think today, even with tent city, trying to find 15 really street entrenched youth would be hard to find.”

Threshold Housing Society operates four homes that provide semi-independent transitional housing for youth aged 16 to 21. The youth can stay at the home for up to two years, where they are provided a safe, stable shelter to concentrate on finding work or finishing school while paying a minimum amount for rent.

During the last three years, the society has averaged between 117 and 140 applications for housing, but can only take 30 youth at a time. Many of the referrals come from school districts, which are finding more high school students trying to live on their own.

“That gives you an indication that something is amiss,” said Muldoon about the increasing amount of applications for housing. “When they focused on tent city a couple months ago, about one or two youth were there. Where are the other 115 youth that you don’t hear from?”

Most of the youth the society deals with are escaping an abusive home or have aged out of foster care and have nowhere else to go other than a homeless shelter. Muldoon has also seen an increase in the amount of transgender youth requesting services after getting kicked out of their homes.

Brittany MacDougall has been living at Holly House since November after leaving her dad’s home — a place she said wasn’t good for her mental health. The 17-year-old stayed in a youth homeless shelter for a week, then began couch surfing. Venturing into the world alone at such a young age was scary.

“It was either I find somewhere to live or I had to move to a different part of the country to stay with family. After moving so many times, I kind of got tired of that and I wanted to stay put for a while, but I wasn’t sure that was possible,” said MacDougall, who went to 15 different schools throughout Nova Scotia, the Yukon and B.C. during her unstable childhood. Recently she applied to the welding program at Camosun College.

“It’s really nice to know that I can actually do things on my own and I can make it. When I was growing up, it was always the ‘if’ mentality — if I get a job, if I ever move out or if I can take care of myself. If you are willing to do the work, you can do it.”

Muldoon believes a lack of affordable housing in Victoria is the driving force behind the city’s homeless youth crisis, followed by a lack of sustainable employment in a place that’s expensive to live.

But the crisis is national, he said, and many adults who’ve wound up living on the streets started their homeless journey at the age of 18 or under, which is why it’s important to prevent youth from becoming homeless in the first place.

In order to keep up with the growing demand, Threshold Housing Society will be opening another facility this September in Oak Bay, offering eight more beds to youth in search of a brighter future.

“They want to prove themselves. They don’t want a hand out, they want a hand up,” said Muldoon. “These are not street entrenched kids that look street entrenched. These are kids who come from various levels of family dysfunction and they just find themselves in very bad circumstances.”

Under the umbrella of the Victoria Cool Aid Society, the Pandora Youth Apartments offers another eight transitional housing units for youth aged 15 to 19.

For more information about Threshold Housing Society visit thresholdhousing.ca.