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Groups call for resources for young 'hidden homeless'

Aug 30 2012

Around a table at a Vic West house, three young people are tucking into beef stew, mashed potatoes and fruit salad.

It's dinner night at the transitional home for youth run by Threshold Housing Society, and life-skills coach Peggy English has been teaching cooking skills. "That means I cook it," she said.

Matthew, 20, and Katherine, 19, have aged out of the foster care system, while 18-year-old Cody left foster care early.

All are grateful to have one of the few spots in Victoria for the growing number of homeless youth.

Matthew, who had been with his foster parents since he was nine, doesn't like to think about the alternatives.

"If I hadn't got it, I would have been on the streets," he said.

Young people have become the "hidden homeless" of Victoria, said Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

It is estimated that about 600 youth between 19 and 24 are without homes and couch-surfing, living in vehicles or camping.

Although accurate counts are difficult to conduct, Victoria is likely seeing a trend like Vancouver's, which had a 29 per cent increase in homeless youth over three years, said Wynn-Williams.

These are not the streetentrenched youth of a decade ago, said Mark Muldoon, executive director of Threshold. "These look like suburban kids."

Many have left home because of conflict or abuse, he said.

"Kids are on the street because of very serious reasons. They won't leave a safe environment unless they have to."

Others have aged out of foster care. "When kids come out of foster care, 45 to 49 per cent end up on the street," he said.

"It's astounding and shocking to think we put that much into foster care and lose half of them in two years to street life."

Those trying to go to school and lead a normal life face huge difficulties, Wynn-Williams said, including "street sickness," a combination of poor hygiene, not enough sleep, stress and anxiety.

But Victoria has only 21 beds earmarked for homeless youth: 16 in semi-independent housing programs and five in the safe housing for youth program.

More supported housing is needed to help deflect kids from a lifetime of homelessness, agreed Wynn-Williams and Muldoon.

"We need to do a lot better. The region needs an overall youth housing plan," Muldoon said.

Young people also need a centralized "clearing house" to deal with everything from employment and welfare to mental health and housing, he said.

"And, of course, we need more money put into the system."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com