For Bev Schmahmann and Teesha Sharma, a visit to one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods was affirmation that more needs to be done for local youth.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is home to a wide swath of drug addicts, sex workers and homeless people left to their own devices, many dealing with mental health issues.
Schmahmann and Sharma, community support workers in Maple Ridge, visited the WISH Drop-in Centre, which helps women involved in the sex-trade on the Downtown Eastside.
“We walked in there and we saw everything from 16-year-old girls to 75-year-old women who were still going out into the street every night,” said Sharma. “That was probably the hardest thing we’ve seen. It’s so easy for our youth to end up down there. Might seem like a really extreme outcome, but the fact is, it’s not. The youth on the streets of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are extremely vulnerable.”
They are hoping to change that.
Schmahmann and Sharma want to open The Blue Door, a long-term group home for homeless youth. According to the pair, there are about 15 homeless youth in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
“Personally, for me, the community should come together,” Schmahmann said. “As a parent, as a mother, even one is too many. We’ve got kids sleeping under bridges on the street. We need somewhere for them to go.”
While the will is there, the logistics of setting up a group home like Blue Door are complicated.
In their search for funding, they’ve come up against the same road block. Before any financial institution while lend them money, they want to see a year of financials.
For Schmahmann and Sharma, opening the doors and covering operating costs for one year would require about $175,000.
Since they’ve launched the idea, they have sat down with a host of local groups and city officials in hopes of garnering not only support, but funding. Everyone from Mayor Nicole Reed to Darrell Pilgrim of the Salvation Army, as well as officials at the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
While they’ve been greeted with support for the idea, securing a location and getting the funds in place is a different matter. The next round of government funding won’t be in place until the spring of 2016. Schmahmann and Sharma said they don’t want to wait that long.
Sharma also said to secure funding from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, The Blue Door would have to comply with the government’s Housing First approach to treatment.
Housing First is a recovery-oriented approach involving moving people who experience homelessness into independent and permanent housing as quickly as possible, with no preconditions, then providing them with additional services and supports as needed. The idea is that people can get their lives back in order quicker if the basic need of having a roof over your head is met. Once that need is in place, then services can be offered to help clients look for work or go back to school.
The Housing First approach has a heavy emphasis on helping those who are addicted and those who suffer from mental health issues.
Schmahmann and Sharma acknowledge that the problem for youth is often different. Addiction, especially, is something just around the corner for a homeless youth, something they are drawn to as their plight deepens.
“That model is not ideal for youth, but that is what’s being funded right now,” Sharma said of Housing First. “So we’ve taken the housing first model and tweaked it for the community and can hopefully make it work for our youth.”
There is also the fact that in a day when the provincial government’s goals are balanced budgets and new taxes to pay for transit funding, money for group homes is in short supply. The Iron Horse Safe House lost its government funding at the end of 2014 and now the group no longer offers overnight beds to kids.
For Schmahmann and Sharma, it’s a need that must be met in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
The Blue Door would shelter five kids, as well as having one emergency bed for overnight stays, said Sharma.
“The fact is it’s been done before. It’s been done in Mission, Abbotsford, and I have to believe that our community will come together and do this because it is so necessary,” said Sharma.
Schmahmann said their vision is, as kids in their program grow and as they move through their lives, they will always have a place to come back to. Whether it’s holidays or they want to come back to mentor, the door is always open.
“We hope that these people can then come back as serve as mentors and an inspiration. We want to base our house on consistency and stability. We want it to be a very tight group of people who are a consistent part of the youths’ lives.”
They’ve been busy knocking on doors, talking to anyone in the community who will listen. They’re encouraged by the response so far.
They said the CEED Centre is willing to donate items to help furnish the home.
The Rotary Duck Race is also on board. The Blue Door is helping sell tickets for the annual race, and receives $9 of every $10 ticket it sells.
But ultimately, Schmahmann and Sharma said they need to community to get behind The Blue Door if it’s ever going to open.
“I think the community will realize this is something they can’t ignore.”