Assaulted with a crowbar by her own brother and unable to cope with her abusive, alcoholic mother, Jeanette, who was 17 at the time, had no choice but to leave the only home she had ever known.
With very little money, the 17 year-old (who asked her last name not be used) sought refuge with a friend in another community, something she had often done in the past.
“That’s what would happen when I couldn’t stay at my mom’s house, when my mom and I had a fight I would just go out and hang out with my friends and drink and just forget about what happened,” said Jeanette, who is now getting her life back on track through the support of the South Okanagan Women In Need Society. “My parents split when I was 13, and it had been bad since then. I grew up with my mom being an alcoholic, and so it was never easy living with her or my older brother.”
Living with her friend also turned ugly in short order and more often than not Jeanette found herself sleeping on the couch with the cats.
“It really smelled like pee and I just couldn’t take it any more,” said Jeanette, who was also on probation at the time. “I couldn’t go home because when my brother assaulted me I went to the police, I didn’t charge him but they (police) said I couldn’t stay there any more with him there.”
It was then she learned about SOWINS from her probation officer. With nowhere else to turn, Jeanette decided to find out more.
Fortunately she was able to get the only youth bed there.
“When I went to SOWINS I don’t even think I had any money. There I had my own room and just having a lock on the door made me feel safe, and having food,” recalled Jeanette about when she arrived at the safe house.“Everyone there was so supportive and it really helped me at a rough time in my life.
It was a great big step to try and get my life organized.”
It was at that time she met SOWINS child and youth care worker Staci Dovbniak, someone who would quickly become a guiding light and one of the most important people in her life.
“By organized, she means going back to school, seeking employment,” said Dovbniak. “Mostly we’re working with youth who are at risk of homelessness or are homeless and they come in and we look at their goals and their needs.
“I don’t make decisions for them. I don’t tell them how to run their life, I don’t judge them when they come in. I just coach and help steer them in the right direction and so I offer support based on their goals.”
But it’s not all work.
“We also just hang sometime,” said Dovbniak. “Get them out of their headspace, sometimes stress and distress in a transition home is tough. Getting out and doing fun things, tapping into what they enjoy, being a kid again. They are totally into becoming adults, but at the same time they’re teens, so doing teen things.”
Learning basic life skills is something else that is done to help youth, things that most kids get at home like getting a social insurance number or a driver’s license.
“Before I really didn’t have any future, but now I’m graduating and in September I’m hoping to take the women’s trades construction program, but I’m open to options,” said Jeanette. “That’s so important for young people to know there are options and SOWINS is a safe place to be and a good stepping stone for the rest of my life.”
Homeless youth problem “epidemic”
Youth suicide and homelessness in the community are only symptoms of what a Penticton care worker describes as much bigger problem.
“I think people would be surprised at how many homeless youth there are on the street. There’s a lot of them and it’s a huge epidemic,” said South Okanagan Women in Need Society’s (SOWINS) Staci Dovbniak who works with troubled kids. “There’s some very traumatic stuff happening to youth out there, and I believe it’s because they don’t have the support they need, somewhere to go.”
According to SOWINS development advisor Marni Adams, the current situation is a recipe for disaster.
“We’ve seen teens flock to the transient camps and campgrounds and party spots when they don’t have anywhere to go,” said Adams. “Then they just nod themselves out with drugs or alcohol.”
That also, in a large number of cases, leads to another problem; sexual exploitation, something else they say is a much larger problem than people realize.
Currently there is only funding for a single youth bed at SOWINS.
“We get several calls a week for youth trying to get into the bed. We could use 15 more,” said Dovbniak, who added the community is sadly lacking in all types of resources for youth.
Added Adams: “We need the resources and funding to continue to help the Jeanette’s get out of these horrible situations and see that smile.”
The bed is available only for a brief stay, so often the youth are moved into the other safe house where they may spend several months.
“We need longer term housing for kids. How do you work with youth in 15 days, 30 days, even?” asked Dovbniak. “Lots of times they are staying longer because we’re trying to get them back to a safe environment.
“So much more needs to be done to help these kids.”
On July 7, the South Okanagan Women In Need Society is hosting their annual fundraiser Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.
One of the main goals of SOWINS right now is the establishment of second-stage housing. Currently the residency in safe houses for women and children is 30 days.
Walk a Mile in Her Shoes takes place in Rotary Park and participants are asked to strap on their favourite heels or red shoes and walk a mile to say no to violence and abuse. Register and donate at www.sowins.com/wamso.