By Belle Hatfield
For The Vanguard
SHYFT is focusing its short-term efforts on resuming supportive services for at-risk youth through a federal program aimed at addressing homelessness in Canada.
SHYFT’s shelter for homeless youth, located in south-end Yarmouth, operated for 15 months until this past April. It closed after the province stopped providing operational funding.
The organization is awaiting word on a grant proposal under the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) that would see two people hired for one year to provide outreach services from the SHYFT house. HPS is a community-based program aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness by providing direct support and funding to communities across Canada.
If the application is successful (and they expect to receive word before the end of the month), SHYFT vice-chair Bernadette MacDonald says the house would be open during the day and early evening. Youth would have access to supportive services – from practical needs like showers and laundry, to one-on-one counseling and connecting with other service providers (mental health, justice, community and education services).
If funding for the positions is forthcoming, MacDonald anticipates working closely with the Split Rock Learning Centre, which received provincial funding in April to hire a youth outreach services worker as part of a province-wide strategy designed to address at-risk youth.
It will not, however, enable SHYFT to deliver its core mandate, which is to provide a safe and supportive transitional home for homeless and at-risk youth.
In the last year, prior to its closure, 34 youth from across the tri-counties called the house on Trinity Place home. The average length of stay was around three months.
“We intentionally set up a home environment,” MacDonald said.
An additional 25 young people used the house’s various outreach services, which were accessed 228 times.
At SHYFT’s annual general meeting, held Tuesday, June 12, at the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Library in Yarmouth, MacDonald observed in her report to the board that SHYFT (which stands for Supportive Housing Youth Focus Team) was founded on a “housing first approach.”
She said without a safe place to live it is difficult to “access services, stay in school, or find employment.”
Chris Salsman, a Clare high school student, knows exactly how difficult. At 14-years-old he joined the ranks of the homeless in a major city in western Canada, having decided the streets were a better alternative than the home in which he had been living. Eventually he accessed a program offering youths shelter and supportive programming. Now at 19 he is completing his high school education.
At the AGM, he was among those advocating for the shelter component of SHYFT’s services to be reinstated as soon as possible, even if only for emergencies.
After the meeting, MacDonald said the board shares the young man’s concerns.
If SHYFT is successful in getting programs operating again from the house, she said the board intends to use the next year to put itself in a financial position to once again provide transitional housing services.
“The whole reason this got started in the first place is because of the huge gap in overnight accommodations for at-risk kids,” she said.
MacDonald said SHYFT would have to look beyond the province for funding. And even if they do find sources of funding in the private, non-profit sector, she acknowledged that continued local support remains key. Pointing to Phoenix House, a program offering similar services in Halifax, she said despite provincial funding for its programs, it relies on fundraising for a significant portion of its operational budget.
As for Salsman, he remains outraged by the province’s decision to cease funding the shelter.
“It makes me upset when the community services minister [Denise Peterson-Rafuse] says, ‘why don’t they just go home?’” he said, referring to one of the stated focuses of the department’s youth strategy, which is family re-unification. “They shouldn’t have to go back to where they have been abused
Noting the provincial support given to Phoenix House, he thinks the need is just as great in rural areas of Nova Scotia.
Salsman is now living with relatives while he finishes high school. He says reaching out to a homeless shelter was the first step on his path to a future. He wants youth in Yarmouth to have that opportunity too.
Referring to his own experience, he said, “at nighttime it’s lonely. There’s no one on the street – well not anyone you’d want to meet.” Salsman doesn’t understand why the province supports Phoenix House, but not Yarmouth’s shelter.
“They’re [the provincial government] forcing kids to walk to Halifax in order to get a bed to sleep in.”