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Meet Our Youth: Tom’s Story

My name is Tom and I am 21 years old. My girlfriend’s mother took me to the YESS Shelter about three years ago. I was in a real emotional state and I was new to homelessness. I accessed the Shelter and the Armoury Resource Centre for a decent amount of time. I would be dead if it wasn’t for YESS. This is so serious, and it is not a joke. I want to say thank you to anyone that plays any sort of role at this organization. I know that sounds vague but it is true. YESS helped me realize that I wasn’t just born to be a homeless person. That has been the hardest thing for me to do, is to change that mindset. When you are homeless it feels like you are worthless. Every day I am working to get rid of those feelings. The staff at YESS, they care. When you are homeless it feels like no one else in society cares and getting over those feelings is still a struggle. So yeah, the staff at YESS, they help save people.

My greatest accomplishment has been getting clean. I have had 4 overdoses and honestly, I just happened to get found. For some people they don’t get found and they die. I saw these things happening to the people around me and to myself. I watched my girlfriend basically die and then get revived. The effects of drug addiction are all the same and it is all terrible and it doesn’t matter what drugs they are. People need to know how serious that is.

For my future, I see general happiness, which is really nice. Five years ago it would have been impossible for me to say that. I have been with my girlfriend now for 3.5 years and the only condition for our relationship is that we are both clean. As long as I am not on drugs, I am happy. And I am doing that now. I will also always be thankful to my girlfriend’s parents. They did everything they could to help get me sober and they did all the hard stuff, the stuff that made me hate them, but they stuck by me, and us.

The daily connection to resources at YESS helped me prove to people that I was working on things. The bus passes that they provided helped me so much. Honestly, the ability to move around the city was a huge deal for me and helped me significantly. Having somewhere to go during the day kept me out of a lot of stuff. And having that is what helped me get to where I am today. When you are living in your addiction the only things on your mind or taking up your time are dealing drugs, buying drugs, dealing with gangs, and you become like an animal and like all those drug instincts they take over. So when you do have those brief moments where you think you want to get out of it, then being at YESS gives you the support to work on those options.

The world used to seem really harsh and cold and not a nice place to be at all. And now it seems like it is so much different. It always felt dangerous and not a place I wanted to be and now my perception is shifting.

I started working at a salon as a barber about two months ago. It gives me a sense of purpose and validates my creativity. It gives me an outlet. I’m so thankful I am working. I would really like to go back to school to become a hairdresser now that I know what all of this feels like.

If I could give advice to someone who is dealing with addiction and homelessness I would say don’t even think about it just go to detox. There is never a perfect time so just go do it. I went 11 times and you just have to keep trying until it clicks for you. It is like anything: you repeat things until you learn it. You keep trying until you learn how to live your life without drugs. And eat something! It plays such a big role in how you feel. You have to eat. You need nutrition. Take advantage of shelters and the food they have to offer.

I would say to people that don’t know anything about homelessness, that everyone’s situation is different. I hope that people will not be so judgmental of homeless youth. Don’t put us down. We are trying so hard just to be alive every day.

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Interview with YESS Board Chair Robert Blackwell

You’ve served on the YESS board for a number of years. What was it about the work YESS does that first drew you to YESS?

I moved to Edmonton 11 years ago as general manager of a hotel on the south side,and was first introduced to YESS through assisting with complimentary meeting space, rooms, etc. which we were happy to provide. We became more involved as our employees participated in Homeless for a Night several years running, so our employees actually chose YESS as our local charity to support. I always felt that YESS was a great fit for our hospitality team as both strive to provide a safe, welcoming environment and comfort to people in need of shelter.

How does serving on a board empower you to give back to your community?

When I look at my own three kids who have grown into healthy, confident young adults, I am incredibly grateful that my wife and I were able to provide a stable, loving home for them and provide them with opportunities to grow and thrive. Working on the YESS board has allowed me to give back by supporting this amazing organization providing sanctuary and support, walking beside Edmonton youth to help them build successful lives after suffering trauma and homelessness during their most critical formative years.

What has been your most remarkable experience at YESS?

The most remarkable thing about YESS is the staff. I am in awe at how committed and passionate they remain through dealing with challenges and incidents every week, and sometimes every day, that would break the spirit of many people. The shelter they provide, programs they deliver, and relationships they build with Edmonton youth facing difficult realities is truly remarkable and changes lives—not many people can say that about the vocation they have chosen, and we all need to be grateful for the people who make organizations like YESS possible.

What do you wish the community knew about YESS?

I wish everyone in Edmonton understood that homeless youth will grow into homeless adults or suffer even worse fates if we don’t act to help them, and there is not nearly enough focus on youth homelessness by all levels of government or funding for organizations like YESS. YESS provides emergency shelter, residential programs, daytime programs, and many other forms of assistance in three facilities, but 70% of our $4M+ budget comes from fundraising efforts. Executive Director Margo Long is working with similar local agencies to build a network dedicated to helping youth, but we need to change how the community and governments view youth homelessness and provide funding in keeping with the scope and consequences of the problem.

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What is trauma and how do we heal?

by Jessica Day, Director of Program Innovations at YESS

Working in the field of trauma support is hard; my friends and family are often confused about what I do and what trauma is. I am sure you are asking the same question: what exactly is trauma and how can YESS actually help youth heal? To answer this question, I ask you to close your eyes and imagine standing in your living room, gazing out your living room window into your community. Imagine the safety and security you feel around being in your own home, in the neighbourhood you have come to love and enjoy. Imagine that a person approaches your window—this person could be a friend, family member, a neighbour, a teacher, or a complete stranger. Now imagine that this person breaks your living room window! It could be that they are breaking into your house to steal something, or they could be trying to scare you, or they could just be breaking the window for their own fun. Either way, your window is now broken, your floor is covered in glass and you are no longer protected from the elements outside (noise, insects, animals, weather, etc). We both know that the window breaking wasn’t your fault.  It scared you and left a mess on the floor and has left you exposed and vulnerable, and none of this was your fault.

You have a choice now: you can avoid cleaning up the glass and replacing the window because this wasn’t your fault or you can use the tools in your house to sweep up the glass and find a way to replace the window. If the glass is not cleaned up, you will get hurt walking around and existing in your house. If your family and friends come over, they could get hurt by the glass as well. Your house will start to deteriorate because of the weather coming in and you will not feel safe or protected. If you clean up the glass, you may need to borrow a broom or get help vacuuming up the pieces. You may need to bring in an expert to help you replace the window. And you can never guarantee that someone won’t break the window again.  But at least you’ll know who to call, what tools you need, and which experts can be brought in to replace the window again. It wasn’t your fault the window broke, but it is your responsibility to clean up and repair your safety, security, and home.

This is the trauma our youth face daily. It is not their fault, but they are left with the responsibility to heal, integrate into the community, and successfully sustain their independence. When the youth experience their trauma, their brains and emotions are not developed enough to know what tools, what experts, and what next steps to heal look like. They are frozen in an emotional survival mode that they use to protect themselves from the confusion, the hurt, and their lack of safety.

Here at YESS, and within every youth-serving agency, we work to help the youth feel that safety to begin to understand their trauma. As they do, we can help them access healthy tools and experts to begin to rebuild relationships and a sense of safety. When youth are given the time and support to transition through their trauma, they are able to see success and growth within themselves and understand their responsibilities and possibilities. With these successes, youth are able to heal and the cycle of support will continue within themselves, their new neighbourhoods, and eventually within our city as a whole.

As a community member, I ask that you take the time to really process what trauma means and how it affects youth, families, and communities. We cannot do this work alone—it takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to heal from trauma. You can help. Your time, your donations, and your voice can all be tools our youth can use to help clean up their home and rebuild a better future.

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