PHOTOS: 'Safe Suites' open for six homeless youths in Kamloops

As of tonight (Dec. 9), six youths will no longer be homeless.

A Way Home Kamloops opened its Safe Suites project today (Dec. 9), a house in the suburbs where six young people who've experienced homelessness will share a single home.

The house is different from other youth housing in Kamloops, says executive director Katherine McParland, as it includes full wraparound supports, including staff on hand 24/7.

"Each youth here will receive a case manager and they'll develop a wellness plan and set all types of different goals around education or employment and they'll be supported to achieve those goals," she says. "We'll be providing on-site counselling, life skills training, meal support and connections to health and other supports in our community."

The wraparound service, along with the leadership of youth who've been homeless, makes this project one-of-a-kind in Kamloops. With six units in two suites, the house will bridge a gap for youth.

"It's about re-imagining the emergency response to young people that are without a home and providing them housing first, in a safe and supportive environment," McParland says. "Many of these kids are fleeing, maybe, environments where they've experienced abuse, maybe they've never lived independently on their own."

Youth can be vulnerable and lack common life skills, she adds, so escaping homelessness to a safe and stable life can be more difficult. Housing them independently may not solve the problem, according to McParland, as issues on the street may follow them to their new home. But the 24/7 staff on hand will help deal with that.

"We did a pilot and we didn't have 24/7 staffing," she explains. "What ended up happening was we had the streets come in; we had experiences of domestic violence, suicidal ideation, sexual exploitation and suicide attempts. ... So we had to stop the pilot project."

There is a need, though — an urgent one. While A Way Home Kamloops has housed 28 youths under 25, there are still around 100 applications on its waitlist. Last year, three youths died in Kamloops while on that waitlist.

During today's opening ceremonies, A Way Home Kamloops peer navigator Kira Cheeseborough explained issues facing youth are different than more mature homeless people.

"When you think of homelessness, you get an image of someone living on the streets but for youth experiencing homelessness, that's only a fraction of it," she explained. "Youth homelessness is distinct from regular homelessness because it is hidden from the public eye."

Common pathways into homelessness for youth include ageing out of foster care, mental illness, LGBTQ2S+ youth not being accepted by their family, and fleeing abuse.

For McParland, it was ageing out of the faster system that left her without a home.

"When I aged out, I needed Safe Suites, but it didn't exist," she told the crowd today. "It was close to Christmas. I was walking in the snow and it was cold. ... I had two black eyes as I was being beaten by a male on the streets. This was my reality."

She lived in a hotel for a bit, which was an improvement, but was also a dangerous place with violence and drugs. She eventually was able to move into a house, but the problems from the streets followed her.

"I was a small, young person and the street ended up moving into the house and taking it over," she explained. "These experiences have fuelled the vision for Safe Suites."

During the opening presentation, McParland thanked many people, including early landlords, who she's created a bond with. There were also private citizens who helped out or donated money, and businesses with oversized cheques.

Tim Kasten, who organized this year's Ride to Reach motorcycle fundraiser in support of A Way Home Kamloops, was also in the crowd today. His initiative brought in $43,000 for Safe Suites.

"If I wasn't able to support my children and provide them with a place to live, I'd want something like this for them to fall back on," he said.

McParland also thanked the province. The cost of the Safe Suites project is somewhere above $400,000; while A Way Home Kamloops has fundraised over $100,000 for it, the province is covering the rest.

The local non-profit is also preparing for its camp out to end youth homelessness, which raises money to house youth in the organization's youth housing first program. The housing model places young adults in housing around Kamloops.

Last week, A Way Home Kamloops announced it was only halfway to reaching its camp out goal of $50,000. 

"I think we're at just about $27,000," McParland says. "If we're not able to achieve that full $50,000, we'll be limited on the number of scattered-site units that we'll be able to open up for youth experiencing homelessness. ... Even if we achieve our goal, there's another 110 youth on our waiting list."

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