By necessity, not choice, Bruce Rivers spends a lot of time myth-busting.
Covenant House, which he directs, is the country’s largest youth homeless shelter. It depends on individual donors for 80 per cent of its funds. If people think homeless kids are rebels looking for a good time, they aren’t likely to give. If they think couch-surfing, sleeping in bus shelters or selling sex is a youthful lark, they’re unlikely to support Covenant House. If they think street kids should just “get a life,” they won’t open their wallets.
These misperceptions are widespread, Rivers says. He has to get the truth out to help the city’s 10,000 homeless youth.
The first point he makes is that 75 per cent of the kids who come through the doors of Covenant House have run away from physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence or substance abuse at home. Going back is not an option.
Forty-three per cent have no home. They come out of the child welfare system.
Thirty-two per cent have mental or psychiatric disorders.
To pierce the complacency of those who feel immune, he adds that 50 per cent come from middle- and upper-income families.
Covenant House has 94 beds, a health clinic, a drop-in centre for non-residents, a food bank, a clothing bank, an on-site high school and an ID clinic for youth who have lost — or left behind — their birth certificate, social insurance number, health card and other identifiers. It has a range of services from counselling to cooking classes. It has an annual operating budget of $22.8 million.
Proud as Rivers is of the work his agency does, it isn’t meeting the need. He gets daily proof. His office is within earshot of the intake desk. About mid-afternoon, he’ll hear adolescents who have just been discharged from hospital, let out of jail or sent by the police to check in asking for a place to sleep. By noon, every bed is typically filled. Youth workers get on the phone until someone finds an overnight vacancy. In the meantime, they offer the new arrivals a shower, hot meal or fresh clothes.
Charities like Covenant House treat the symptoms of homelessness, Rivers says. Real change won’t come until policy-makers at all three levels of government invest in affordable housing and adequate safety nets for kids in distress.
He is surprisingly optimistic that things will get better. “The stars are aligning,” he says. The federal government has pledged to dedicate a portion of its 10-year $125-billion infrastructure fund to social housing. The province has announced a 10-year target to end chronic homelessness. The city has thrown its material and moral support behind a campaign recently launched by Covenant House. “Just Like a Girl You Know” aims to raise public awareness of sex trafficking and offer girls lured into prostitution a safe place to stay and a chance to escape from their pimps.
The charity’s fundraising efforts are also going well. Several developers have set aside apartments in their buildings for youth sent by Covenant House. One wealthy donor provided a large sum to be used for rent subsidies allowing kids who’ve been stabilized into market housing. Last year the charity came within a hair’s breath of a balanced budget. “It’s exciting to see that there are so many people who want to be part of the solution,” Rivers says.
He acknowledges there are still huge boulders to move. Hospitals continue to discharge psychiatric patients straight onto the streets. Jails release young offenders with no preparation for life outside. Children’s aid societies let too many troubled kids fall through the cracks. Race plays a role. So does sexual orientation. Aboriginal young people are vastly overrepresented in the homeless population.
“The longer a kid is on the street, the more likely he or she is to stay there,” Rivers says, drawing on a lifetime of experience in child welfare. He was executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto for 16 years. He spent two years in the welfare secretariat of the provincial ministry of children and youth services. He was a member of the government’s expert advisory panel on homelessness.
But nothing in his previous experience required him to reach out to strangers. He was a public employee. He spoke primarily to bureaucrats and politicians.
At Covenant House, life is less predictable and less secure. But Rivers gets to show his passion and champion kids who need a safe home.