October 31, 2002

"Street is Home"

The Chronicle-Herald
LivingYouthPress, Thursday, October 31, 2002, p. A16

Street is home; 'We live in a different world but we're not different people'
Chris Arsenault

DOM ANDREWS has been living on the streets for about two years and he's
heard it all before.

"I've been called street rat, trash and some guy even called me a monkey," said the 17-year-old Halifax native.

Wearing an old army coat and carrying a beat-up guitar case, Dom seems to be one of a growing number of young people calling the streets of Halifax home.
"I counted 27 people sleeping on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road the other night," said Liam Smith, a bearded anti-poverty activist and a poor youth himself.

People end up on the streets for a wide variety of reasons. At Victoria Park, a popular hangout for street people, 23-year-old Nathan Johnson (presumably using a fake name) begins his story over a Fax, 10 per cent beer which sells for $2 a can.

"I left home six years ago (he was originally from Saskatoon, but moved to Vancouver). I had friends living on the streets and I was doing a lot of heroin."
Nathan, sporting a puffy jacket, looks like any other twentysomething, except for a big sleeping bag under one arm. He wouldn't go into details about his life before the streets. "Obviously things would be bad for us if we want to live on the street," he said.

Kids like Dom and Nathan scrape by however they can. "Busking, you can make nothing or you can make close to 100 bucks sometimes," said Dom.
Those who can't play music, or art usually do odd jobs, panhandle or squeegee.

Angela Bishop of the Community Action on Homelessness is one of Halifax's most respected anti-poverty activists. She says homelessness has been on the rise for the last 10 years and blames the problem on a number of factors.
"(There are) all kinds of unique stories for each person but it could be a combination - addictions, abuse, poverty, loss of family and mental-health issues."

Those hanging out at Victoria Park seemed to be influenced by all those factors, but the issue goes deeper than that.

Kids in dirty Exhaust and Echo brand clothing told stories about highs from cat tranquillizers. Some, with hoods covering their heads, mumbled quietly and looked like they needed some mental counselling. A couple of kids had black eyes that were just healing from the violence of the streets and family life that preceded them.

But others take to the streets for different reasons. "The most interesting and appealing thing about this (living on the street) is it gives you a way to see the world as it really is," said Amelia Bedelia, in her early 20s, and using the name of a wacky children's storybook character.

She feels at odds with the world. "Sometimes you feel like you could just disappear and no one would notice," Amelia said. With political patches on her torn jeans, Amelia sees street life as an imperfect boycott of a system she despises.

"People who don't have possessions aren't valued. This consumerist society leads to the degradation of the human spirit," she said. "I never go anywhere funded by the government and I've never collected welfare."

Amelia's political stance may not be the norm, but her resentment and distrust of the status quo is something shared by most street youth and the broader youth population.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress, more than 58 per cent of single men and 71 per cent of single women under 25 in Canada live in poverty and less than one in four vote in most elections.

Nationally, promises made in the late 1980s to end child poverty by the new millennium were broken.

In fact, as many church groups point out with their A Million Broken Promises campaign, child and youth poverty have actually increased. These facts certainly don't tell all sides of the story but they add fuel to a fire burning inside many street youth and their sympathizers.

John, who didn't want to give his last name, just got evicted from his apartment and has only been on the streets for a week. "I've washed dishes for the last four years and I just couldn't do it anymore," he said. Youth advocates say real wages for young people have been dropping since 1982 and for many, part-time minimum-wage jobs are the only option.

They say there's only so long a person can work in a high-stress, low-pay situation. John usually sleeps on friends' couches or in the occasional bank-machine lobby. He wants to restart his life, but says it will be difficult because his landlord threw away his things.

"The streets everyone else walks on are different for us," said Nathan, adding he feels he's living in a different world from people who have a home to go to. And without a high school education or a trade, he doesn't think he'll become part of "the other world" anytime soon.

"I need something to work forward to, that would give me something, if I were to get off the streets." But after six years on the streets, finding another avenue for Johnson to live his life isn't easy, in the same way prisoners are often scared to leave jail because they don't know how to deal with the norms, rules and interactions of mainstream society.

Young street people say one of the best things people in the "other world" can do is listen to and respect them.

A common stereotype is that street youth acquire dogs to gain sympathy and money from people. And while this may be true in some cases, most of them have dogs for the same reason anyone would have one: friendship, protection and fun. "I'll go hungry before my dog does," said Drew, a street person who often squeegees at the Robie-Quinpool intersection.

Many street youth feel they are denied the right to simple everyday interaction, which they say alienates them further. "People wouldn't even shake my hand," said Dom, adding he showers every day at a youth drop-in centre.

However, they feel there are ways to bridge the gaps, the stereotypes and the other problems street youth face.

As Nathan puts it: "We live in a different world but we're not different people."
Chris Arsenault is a student and freelance writer who lives in Halifax.

Eric Wynne / Herald Photo
Protestors who barricaded themselves at the emergency entrance to the old Halifax Infirmary on Queen Street chant and sing after activists occupied the building Saturday afternoon. A growing number of young people call the streets of Halifax home.

Category: Society and Trends
Uniform subject(s): Children
Length: Long, 890 words
© 2002 The Chronicle-Herald - Halifax. All rights reserved.
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