2 min

A new Icon

Nightspot to be refuge for street youth

WARMTH AGAINST THE COLD. Youth worker Normand St Georges will be there for street youth seeking refuge in the former Icon gay bar. Credit: Shawn Scallen

It’ll be a new kind of Icon. The old gay and lesbian dance club, which last December closed its doors at 366 Lisgar St, will soon help kids who need it.

Capital Xtra has learned that Ottawa’s Youth Services Bureau (YSB) bought the building from previous owner Ed St Jean.

There’ll soon be a new lease on life for the gay hot spot. And a new lease on life for this city’s street youth. The building will soon house both a young men’s shelter and a transitional housing program. The plan calls for the facility to be built by March, 2006.

Denise Vallely says the facility – the first of its kind in Ottawa – will provide up to 30 young men with safe housing and access to professional staff who will “help them address the varied issues they are struggling with.”

What city hall wants, says the director of community programming at the YSB, “is more youth having access to safe, affordable housing.”

The shelter’s target population is male youths between the ages of 12-20, who are homeless and in need of emergency shelter. Vallely says many of these young men have experienced physical or sexual abuse at home and “coping strategies” of drugs and alcohol are often an issue, as well.

As well, a large percentage of the youth are also dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender.

“Essentially, they are all in need,” she says. “”We’ve got an opportunity to really make a difference in their lives.”

Surveys in cities across North America show that more than one-third of homeless youth are gay or lesbian.

The transitional housing program will serve homeless young men who want to find a place of their own, but are having difficulty doing so, due to lack of skills or “a functional network of support in the community,” says Vallely.

She says bureau staff believe the facility will reduce the time the young men and teens in need spend in a shelter. That’s because moving more quickly toward independence lowers the risk of youths “graduating” into the adult shelter system.

“They can stay up to one year in transitional housing. But we are projecting an average stay of six months. Our hope is with these models, we can really decrease the number of youth that move to adult shelters.”

In addition, the facility will provide programs where the youths can work toward developing “independent living skills” and increase their chances for “successful reintegration into the community,” says Vallely.

The Supporting Community Partnerships Initiative, a federal program, awarded $7.12 million to the YSB in July to build two 30-unit facilities, one for young men and one for young women, on separate sites in town. The site for the young women’s facility has not yet been announced.

Vallely adds that the Lisgar St. location is ideal for such a facility, as it is easily accessible for youth and close to the YSB’s drop-in centre on Besserer St.

“Currently, the young men’s shelter is housed at the Salvation Army on George Street. But that’s not the safest environment for them, to be in there with the older men,” says Vallely.

YSB has been developing a project plan for the two facilities since the spring of 2002.

Their model was designed to provide the city with two separate facilities at different locations, which would offer both shelter beds and a transitional housing program. The projects can be converted to independent housing if the need for shelter services were to decline in Ottawa.

The bureau presented its project to the city for consideration in the winter of 2003.