On August 12th, we celebrate International Youth Day in Canada. Since its inception by the UN General Assembly on August 12, 2000, International Youth Day has served to increase the quality and quantity of opportunities available to youth, so that they can actively participate in society. It’s also a day for local youth to raise awareness of the cultural and legal issues faced by youth in their area.
Here in Ottawa, organizations like Operation Come Home advocate for the basic rights of youth on a daily basis by supporting those who are experiencing homelessness, and facing discrimination, mental health issues, challenges with the justice system, and barriers to income, health and education. Below is an article written by a team member at Operation Come Home, speaking to how as a community we must respond to the needs of youth, so that they can flourish by feeling a sense of security, opportunity, and belonging. We need to start by housing our youth, because Youth #StartsWithHome.
Cactus was killed a little more than sixteen years ago. On June 14th, 2006, an altercation in the underpass at the corner of Rideau and Sussex ended with the stabbing of Cactus in front of his friends, with whom he had been sleeping rough in the underpass. Friendly and outgoing, Cactus was a familiar face at the Operation Come Home drop-in. A friend to everyone who needed one, and fiercely protective of those friends, he was well-known and well-liked by everyone in our building. His loss was a devastating blow to the youth community, and hit both the staff and clients of Operation Come Home. Hard.
Shortly thereafter, the Operation Come Home drop-in was renamed the Cactus drop-in. The youth created a tribute board with his photo in the middle of it, and wrote messages to their friend all around the outside. That tribute board has remained in the drop-in ever since. Over the years, other tribute boards went up beside Cactus. One was killed by a perpetrator targeting sex workers in 2011. Another suffered an overdose in 2012. A youth who died by suicide was given a tribute in 2014.
These tribute boards on the wall of the drop-in allowed youth to remember their friends, to grieve together, and to connect with one another in solidarity when faced with the dangers of life on the street. Then fentanyl came to Ottawa.
By 2018, there were no more new tribute boards in the drop-in. There was simply no more wall space. The tributes were no longer opportunities to remember friends and share joyful memories. Instead they were a stark, bleak, and panic-inducing reminder that street life in Ottawa was now more dangerous than ever. That death was no longer a sporadic occurrence, but a regular one.
There is a myth that persists to this day about substance use and homelessness. The belief among many is that homelessness in youth is caused by substance use. Someone tries weed, and then they graduate to mushrooms and then cocaine and eventually heroin. That they end up spending all their money on drugs, lose their house, lose their family, and end up panhandling to feed that habit. This is so rarely the case.
Life on the street is hard. It’s lonely and isolating when the people who walk by ignore you or look at you as though you’re less than human. It’s uncomfortable when you have to find a place to sleep in a parking garage in the winter or can’t find an indoor place to cool off in the summer. It’s destructive to your spirit. Once you are on the street the steps and systems required to find a home, get a job, or receive mental health support can seem like impossible hurdles to clear, especially as a young person.
Substance use is a coping mechanism, one of the very few readily-available, immediately gratifying escapes from the crushing reality of daily life on the street, and the mental, physical and emotional strain that comes with it.
The street leads to substance use. Only by getting off the street can people address their mental health concerns, and get to a place where drugs no longer seem like the only means of escape. And the best way to get people off the street – and keep people from ending up there – is by drastically increasing the amount of low-barrier affordable housing in Ottawa. This is why Operation Come Home enthusiastically endorses the Starts With Home campaign.
Ottawa is losing affordable housing at an alarming rate. We are, at the same time, not creating enough to meet the demand we are seeing on the ground. Without drastic and immediate action more youth will find themselves chronically homeless and the crisis will worsen. With that, the fentanyl crisis will worsen. We need everyone to raise their voice in support of affordable housing in every place and every circumstance where it can be achieved.
The youth who come to Operation Come Home, and the adults who visit the shelters downtown, are living with a reality that few of us experience. One where premature death is not just a possibility, but an eventual likelihood. The only thing that would solve this is a home.