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‘We were inundated’

Year-old street youth centre overwhelmed

STRUGGLING TO STAY AFLOAT: 'My priority is getting kids here alive. This is triage around here,' says Directions' lesbian director Renata Aebi. Credit: John Inch

One year after opening the Directions street youth centre on Burrard St, its lesbian director says she’s overwhelmed and under-funded.

“We were inundated. We had 100 people in here and were turning people away,” recalls Renata Aebi of the centre’s first night open. “My staff were saying ‘I don’t even know these people, they’re not our regulars.'”

Directions opened its doors 24/7 at 1134 Burrard St on Dec 1, 2005. It amalgamated services offered until then by Dusk 2 Dawn, the nighttime drop-in centre at nearby St Paul’s Hospital, and daytime programs at Street Youth Services. Both served youth up to age 21. Aebi initially aimed to help youth up to age 24.

Even if demand doubled, “I thought the numbers were pretty manageable,” says Aebi. However, she reluctantly scaled the age limit back to 21 due to a lack of resources for adequate staff.

Many youth were seeking shelter for the night; something Directions is not bylawed to offer. “What you’re trying to do is keep 100 people awake at night in your centre, which is not designed for programming. It’s not like we have things going on. It’s intended to be crisis response [at night]. They were sort of sleeping in layers in the smoke room. It was crazy.

“We realized we captured a group of people we didn’t know about and hadn’t been serving previously. And to me, that’s just the tip,” says Aebi.

Add to the mix youth addicted to meth and it’s an unstable recipe. “So we’ve initiated a concept in the after-hours portion, from midnight to 8 am, where you’re signing in, signing out,” Aebi explains. Youth can stay for an hour, then must sign out and leave for an hour, then sign in again.

“Youth don’t like it. I get that. It’s a pain in the ass,” Aebi admits.

Establishing how many youth are on the streets is difficult. “Youth have the capability not to be seen if they don’t want to. They’re just healthier, they’re younger. So you’re never going to capture them in one of those one-night count deals we do,” she says.

Equally difficult is identifying how many queer youth are using the centre, in part because youth are less inclined to label themselves these days.

“Just because their boyfriend is there doesn’t mean they don’t have a girlfriend another week,” says Aebi.

As part of an effort to make the centre queer-friendly, Directions adopted a gay-straight alliance started at Dusk 2 Dawn. However, its meetings have been sporadic.

“We’re not sitting in a slush of funding here. My priority is getting kids here alive. This is triage around here,” Aebi says, adding, “I’m really confident our staff here are very, very gay positive.”

Indeed, Aebi jokes that the ratio of queer to straight staff is “disproportionate to the general population.”

According to a tally of youth visiting from midnight-8 am between Apr 1, 2005 and Mar 31, 2006, 663 youth visited Dusk 2 Dawn and Directions. Thirty-seven identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer. Last April alone, Directions averaged about 200 individuals during nighttime hours.

Queer or straight, the greatest demand from youth has been for help finding housing. However, it is difficult to gauge whether the demand for services has increased in the last year, says Aebi.

“I can tell you that we’ve seen a decrease in services across this province that seems to have culminated in an increase in general in homelessness,” she says.

In winter, demand for nighttime services actually decreases because youth are staking out a warm place to sleep. “There are so many more security guards and people who are trying to push folks out of this area,” says Aebi.

This points to a need for shelters specifically for youth reluctant to use Downtown Eastside services meant for adults, she continues. One Vancouver shelter has 16 one-bedroom units specifically for youth, while another resource has an eight-year waiting list, she notes.

With a lack of government funding, it’s time for the community to step up, she says.

When Directions recently lost provincial money for its street youth job action program, Aebi successfully campaigned the West End community, including businesses, to write MLA Lorne Mayencourt. Now she reports, “It looks like they’re going to give us one-time money to try and keep this program alive.”

Ultimately Aebi, who is also a member of the Davie Village Business Improvement Association board, wants to contract businesses in the community to operate Directions’ programs. By funding general programs, the community helps queer youth, says Aebi, noting, “They’re in every program here. They aren’t separate.

“In terms of what the gay community can do, I think they need to step up like any citizen does and look at how they can end homelessness in this community. And that’s not just about gay kids. We need to be adults in our community and show some responsibility,” Aebi concludes.