“Thick, white rain.”

That’s what one young adult calls the forecasted precipitation to avoid using the word snow. His effort to enforce the same censorship on a few dozen youth and young adults sparks laughter all around. The forecast is hardly surprising considering the chill in the air, but inside this mobile drop-in centre, there is a noticeable warmth and camaraderie.

It’s the kind of conversation that could take place within any youth group in Calgary. However, this group’s concern about snow is particularly significant because each of its members is homeless.

Despite a decade’s worth of effort to deal with homelessness in Calgary, many of the city’s young people still live without a permanent address. An organization called StreetLight is trying to provide them with a temporary one — a trailer, which operates as a mobile drop-in centre, provides food, shelter and a place where homeless youth can warmly talk about the weather. 

Youth homelessness

 Alberta’s ambitious 10-year plan to end homelessness ran out of time when the calendar turned to 2019. Although it was not without some success, according to Carissa Lawton, executive director of StreetLight, there are still upwards of 600 homeless youth and young adults in Calgary. This figure includes those living on the street and young people who may be couch surfing, accessing shelters or living outside of a stable home environment in any other way.

There are many factors that may lead to youth homelessness, from simple conflicts to more serious abuses.

“More than not, it is the fact that there’s some semblance of family breakdown within the home,” says Lawton.

22-year-old Marcus Ophilias 一 whose real name isn’t being used to protect his future housing and employment opportunities 一 has been coming to StreetLight since last December. At the time, he had been homeless for around seven months after being asked to leave his previous residence for excessive drinking.

He began sleeping in hospitals, saying, “I’m just waiting for my mom,” when staff asked what he was doing there. This didn’t last long, and soon he was on the streets, unaware of the various drop-in centres where he could find shelter. When he eventually discovered a centre, Ophilias stayed there throughout the winter.

Then, in December of that year, another homeless friend invited him to StreetLight.

The non-profit organization, which has existed for over 25 years, began in an RV before graduating to a school bus and finally moving into a 48 ft. trailer.

Today’s version of StreetLight includes tables with seating, a kitchen and a second story loft with a television and an Xbox. Although it has grown, Lawton says the mobile drop-in centre’s goals and mentalities have stayed the same.

Goal #1: Feed those who come

One of StreetLight’s primary purposes is feeding those who attend. Ophilias himself admits he originally came for nothing more than food, as he became increasingly malnourished the longer he was homeless.

“On the streets you don’t eat well, in drop-in you don’t eat well,” he says.

This isn’t the case at StreetLight. Tonight, a full-blown turkey dinner is on the menu, thanks to a volunteer church group. As a nonprofit, StreetLight relies on donations like this from various partners for the food they serve.

Goal #2: Build a community

Lawton says StreetLight provides a lot more than just food.

“[We ask ourselves] how do we care not only for their physical state 一 but also do this in a holistic way that encompasses all the needs that the youth might have?”

Food is often a gateway for mental and emotional support. StreetLight is currently developing a mentorship program which seeks to foster a place of healthy community, safety and belonging for homeless youth.Table 1Carrissa Lawton, (left) is the director of StreetLight. She says that she is trying to work herself out of a job by empowering the youth she works with. Photo by Blaise Kemna
Ophilias, who received his own personal mentor when he began to attend, says he immediately connected with the community.

“[Most people] see me sleeping on the transit and all that, [and] maybe I didn’t smell good some days, but they judge you and you can see it. Even though they’re not talking to you, you see it. But here they didn’t.”

He says this is why he started to attend more often.

Goal #3: Make it a place to foster dreams

Lawton says the final piece of the program is building hope for the future and providing a place where youth can work towards their own goals.

“We’re basically trying to work ourselves out of a job,” she says.

Through relationships built in mentorship, staff can recognize the specific needs of those they work with. The mentorship program also helps youth with practical skills, such as finding work, budgeting and finding affordable housing. StreetLight can then refer youth to other organizations who are working towards the same goal.

Ophilias has become a success story of this program. As he started to attend more consistently, he began desiring more from life.

“I just missed having a bed. I missed having my life, and I didn’t want to be homeless anymore. I didn’t want to do drugs. I didn’t want to screw my life up because I know I’m young and I can do a lot better for myself.”

After coming to this realization, Ophilias entered a period of, what he calls, slow progression. His goals were overwhelming until his mentor helped break them down step by step. Then in August, after being homeless for just over a year, Ophilias found a place to live.

“If I didn’t have some guidance, or if I didn’t have some direction in life, I know I would still be on the streets right now.”

Overall, Ophilias says StreetLight has had a huge impact on his life. From the first time he came in for food, he has felt at home in the trailer. Now, when the “thick, white rain” threatens to take over the city this year, he won’t need to sleep in hospitals or shelters — he’ll sleep in his own home.

Editor: Cassandra Woods | cwoods@cjournal.ca

Editors Note: This story is part of the Calgary Journal’s November-December print issue. You can find a digital version here, or grab a copy at news stands across the city.

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