A formerly homeless Perth youth is hoping that the program that helped get him off of the streets won’t be cut and close the door to other needy youth.
“I was homeless a number of times last year,” said Dan LaPointe, because a fire destroyed his residence. The Skills Link program, he says, helped him with training, and got him back on his feet.
“Because of cuts to social services, this program might not see the light of day, even after so many success stories,” like his own, said LaPointe.
LaPointe was born and continues to live in Perth and attends Algonquin College’s Perth campus where he is studying to become a social service worker.
He was speaking at a public meeting entitled “Our Resources, Our Future,” which was held in the council chambers at Perth town hall on Wednesday, Nov. 14, and was joined by his classmate, Jenna Kelford.
“There are a lot of kids and youth in Perth who do not have homes,” said Kelford. “Usually they just couch surf. They do that for a while and then people get sick of them… If the family home is a safe place then they should be at home. But some kids do not want to be at home. It’s not the best place for them.”
Kelford’s mother, Terri Lee, the co-founder of Transitions Action Coalition, was also in attendance and added that the problem goes beyond couch-surfing.
“Stewart Park has kids sleeping under park benches,” said Terri Lee. “They don’t want anyone seeing them. If one person sees them, then the whole high school will know.”
Part of the problem is that various levels of government do offer programs – but far away in bigger cities.
“Our kids are expected to access programs in Ottawa or Kingston,” said Terri Lee.
Some kids do, in fact, see Ottawa as a viable option to continuing to be homeless in Lanark County.
“A lot of our youth think that Ottawa has a lot to offer,” said Kelford. But this is not so. “The shelters are full.”
There are other dangers that are more present for homeless youth in Ottawa, especially for those just newly arrived from Lanark County.
“(It’s like) they have a sign on their head that says, ‘Take advantage of me, I am vulnerable,’” said Terri Lee, who added that they will usually be approached by a pimp or drug dealer within 24 hours of their arrival.
Kelford was born and raised in the Perth area, where she attended Glen Tay Public School, Perth and District Collegiate Institute, and then took tourism and travel at Sir Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough.
Even though she worked hard at school, for homeless youth, “school isn’t a priority,” Kelford said. Rather, finding some place to sleep that night becomes the priority.
Growing up in the rural area outside of Perth, since her parents worked full time, and because of a lack of public transportation, she was not able to avail of many after-school activities.
“It would be great if we had some form of public transportation,” said Kelford.
Another problem facing local youth are issues of depression and mental health. While Kelford is not affected personally by this issue, she does see for herself how difficult it is to access even basic care. Algonquin College has a counselor on staff available to talk to students who need it.
“I never went (to a counselor) before,” said Kelford. “I don’t have depression but I just (needed) to talk and vent.”
Even though the counselor is only for Algonquin students, there is still a month-long waiting list at the Perth campus.
“They will not just open up to anybody,” said Kelford, who noted that mental health issues tend to lead to addiction issues, and vice versa.
Both youngsters agreed that there is considerable stereotyping directed at young people. Though she is 27, “I go into stores and because I look like I’m 12, people follow me around,” she said. “Not everyone is bad. They shouldn’t be labeled.”
But Kelford did commend the Junior Civitan Club for their work in reaching out to the town’s youth. Just that evening, the club had sponsored an opportunity for youth to decorate Christmas trees at the Crystal Palace.
“It gives them something to do, it gets them off of the street,” said Kelford.
Terri Lee added that surveys done in local high schools found that between 30 and 40 per cent of students knew of someone who had been, or was, homeless, in the last year. While students are all too aware of the issue, adults may not be as aware.
“Getting the community to realize that there is a problem (is important),” said Terri Lee. “We don’t see it so we don’t think it is here. The issue is huge.”
She noted that just having one shelter in, say, Carleton Place, might not be the solution, since kids do not want to “uproot” themselves from positive adult support peers, like teachers or coaches, and their friends, to go to a shelter.
“Finding one shelter for the county of Lanark would not solve the problem,” Terri Lee said. Instead, it would be a matter of having shelters in the county’s major centres, like Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Perth.