Schools offer a lifeline for many homeless and street-involved youth in B.C. who otherwise would have no place to connect with caring adults or make healthy friendships, a new report shows.
The McCreary Centre Society says its latest survey of homeless youth in Victoria, Nanaimo and other cities across the province highlights the crucial role that teachers and other school officials play — often larger than they realize — in the lives of vulnerable children.
Annie Smith, the society’s executive director, said the survey explodes a number of myths about homeless young people, including the misconception that most are dropouts.
In fact, the survey found that 68 per cent of the youth were in school, despite major challenges in their lives, and 51 per cent planned to pursue a post-secondary education.
“They were telling us, which makes total sense, that school provides a really safe place, where you know there’s going to be safe adults who care about you and care about your welfare,” Smith said.
The survey of 681 youth between the ages of 12 and 19 found that many of them had been suspended or expelled from school. It also found that homeless youth are vulnerable to bullying and teasing while at school.
But those who reported feeling connected to their schools were more likely to rate their mental health as good or excellent, while 80 per cent of those with a caring teacher planned to finish high school and pursue post-secondary education.
The survey’s findings align closely with the front-line experiences of staff at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, said executive director Andrew Wynn-Williams.
“We’ve anecdotally heard stories in the past about how one observant teacher can make a difference in a kid’s life by helping them find a shower or helping them do something,” he said.
The coalition tried to take advantage of that last year by creating a checklist to help teachers, counsellors and others spot the early warning signs that a youth is at risk of homelessness and get them help sooner.
Wynn-Williams said there’s often a misconception that all street youth are fleeing abuse.
“Quite often it’s just a family conflict, or they’re just having trouble getting along with their parents,” he said.
“There’s something that’s created this rift and if you can fix that and get the kid back into their own home, that is the best solution.”
The McCreary Society found that some schools may underestimate the extent of the problem. A key message from the survey is the need to recognize that they likely have homeless students in their classrooms.
“When the youth researchers were out doing the surveys, we had a number of schools say, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We don’t have homeless kids here.’ When, in actual fact, those same kids we did survey because we found them on the street or in a youth shelter,” Smith said.
More than that, however, teachers should know the crucial impact they can have on vulnerable kids, she said.
“I think they sometimes think, ‘You know, we’ve only got these kids a few hours a day. They’re going back to these terrible circumstances. What difference can I make?’ But they really do make a difference.”
The society conducted the survey in 13 communities from October 2014 to January 2015.