Renata Aebi, lesbian director of the new youth centre at 1134 Burrard St, has ambitious goals.
Namely, she wants to build bridges between street youth and the community by giving kids the tools to get off the street, into housing and employed under one queer-friendly roof.
It’s a step in the right direction, says one young man who’s been there.
“A lot of kids feel completely hopeless. It seems nobody wants to give you the time of day,” says David James, a youth worker and peer counsellor at Dusk to Dawn, who spent five years on and off the streets of Saskatoon.
The new Burrard St centre, where construction broke ground in June, is scheduled to open Nov 3. In addition to offering essentials like food, laundry, showers and medical and mental health treatment, during daytime hours the 24-7 centre will offer addictions counsellors, housing workers, education and job skills training to youth committed to staying clean and sober.
“There’s got to be more than coming in and picking up needles every day,” says Aebi, referring to short-term work currently offered to street youth.
Teaching life skills that can be useful in the job market will be a big part of the centre. For instance, a doggy daycare project at the centre’s pet kennel will offer youth who want to get clean a safe place to leave their pets during detox, plus teach youth potential job skills.
Aebi is counting on the community to take part, and has joined the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA).
Little Sister’s co-owner and BIA board member Jim Deva says he will offer centre-trained youth employment. He’s confident other businesses will follow suit once the job programs are introduced and gain the business community’s confidence.
“Young people who do show some initiative to try and get their lives together, we’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt and we’ve got to find them something to do that’s constructive,” Deva says. “It will not turn around without the business community being a part of it.”
James agrees. He says it can be hard for street youth to know where to look for opportunities. Guiding youth to businesses or other resources is imperative to their success, he says.
He still remembers the first chance he was given with a gay community centre. “I had limited experience, but they gave me a six-month contract that lasted three-and-a-half years,” says James.
Making the new centre queer-inclusive with a diverse cast of staff is also a priority for Aebi.
“If you walk into the centre and see gay people-that’s welcoming,” she says. A gay-straight alliance (GSA) like the one James helped start at Dusk to Dawn should help establish this environment, she hopes.
Dusk to Dawn’s GSA gave street kids “the opportunity to let their guard down about who they are sexually” amongst their peers, says James.
For many youth he knows, trust is an issue. Though support networks for queer youth exist, James says having a GSA at the centre is crucial.
“I tried to go to GLBT youth groups because the community is supposed to be accepting but I got made fun of for being a dirty street punk,” he says.
Though he suspects his red mohawk and leather pants had more to do with that rejection than his living on the street, he says healthy environments where queer street youth can learn about queer culture are lacking.
The new centre’s planned GSA is a huge step in the right direction, he says.
Deva, part of a team that counted the homeless in the West End last spring, says it’s important to offer services where they are needed.
“I do think the West End has to look after our GLBT youth in a holistic, West End kind of way.
“We shouldn’t have to send them out of the West End for the kind of treatment that they need. It only makes sense to let that take place in the West End community where they’re nurtured, prosper and hopefully will live.
“The number of young people on the street and their feeling of destitution is huge,” he continues. “It’s got to be turned around and I’m hoping 1134 Burrard will go a long way towards doing that.”