Column

The kids who make it in from the cold

There’s no telling how many escape the street. There are stories, though—and they’re worth hearing

Bob Levin December 21 1998
Column

The kids who make it in from the cold

There’s no telling how many escape the street. There are stories, though—and they’re worth hearing

Bob Levin December 21 1998

The kids who make it in from the cold

Column

Bob Levin

There’s no telling how many escape the street. There are stories, though—and they’re worth hearing

You can’t see it, just looking. No nose rings, no Mohawk, none of the other spiky insignia of the street. Sitting in a Toronto sub shop, spooning her vegetable soup, she is a poised 20-year-old woman, smartly dressed, her brown eyes bright—a woman who was once a street kid and only a year and a half ago kicked her drug habit. A violent home, a resort to pot, booze, acid, and then the road time, sleeping on beaches or in a car in California and Vancouver, playing her guitar for change, stealing, getting beaten by her boyfriend, then the cocaine and the tortured escape to detox—she recounts it all with a controlled matter-of-factness, ashamed but somehow accepting, although parts she can’t remember very well. “I was so wasted,” she says.

Outside the restaurant, people bustle along the darkened sidewalk. Streetcars squeal, commuters honk. She is part of that world now, or almost, working in a bookstore and living in a rehab home. At her job, says Sally, which isn’t her real name but one she picked for print,

“I can go downstairs and pay five bucks for a sandwich and not worry about it: ‘Oh, it’s OK,

I can afford it.’ I think that’s the most startling thing, to have all these, like, privileges. It feels weird.” She no longer has to shoplift her Christmas presents; she will buy her mother something in a store. That part feels good.

Kids, holidays, home: they’re supposed to be inseparable, a perfectly wrapped package, the season’s holy trinity. They’re a reminder of what street kids have lost and what people like Sally—the ones who struggle in from the cold—so desperately seek: a normal life. Sally is quick to say: “I don’t really look back and think, ‘Boy, I’m a big success.’ I think more like, ‘I have a long way to go.’ ” But you get the feeling she’ll make it, and hope she will, and she’s something to consider as you hurry past a young panhandler or curse a squeegee kid (or listen to politicians talk about passing laws to force squeegees from the streets, which is like fighting disease by fining sick people). “These are kids in need,” says Geraldine Babcock, Toronto coordinator of the Metro Youth Job Corps. “We have to find solutions and be compassionate. We’re losing that.”

It helps to know who these kids are—and aren’t. They’re not Sixtiesstyle dropouts, slumming for a while before returning to their middleclass lives; surveys show about three-quarters of today’s street kids left home because of physical or sexual abuse. The Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, which published a report on street youth last month, said more than 80 per cent had been on the street for over a year, surviving by panhandling, squeegeeing, prostituting, dealing drugs, getting welfare. How many such kids are there in Canada? Who knows? In Toronto alone (which, with a grandiosity only a megacity could manage, recently declared homelessness a “national disaster”), estimates range wildly from 2,000 to more than 10,000.

So, naturally, there’s no telling how many escape the street. There are stories, though—and they’re worth hearing.

Shaun—his real name—left his troubled home in Saskatoon at 14, lived in foster care, worked as a carnie, then began a hitchhiking odyssey (Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, Kelowna ...) that dragged on for years. Two summers ago, he lost his left eye in a Saskatchewan bar fight. He began drinking heavily, thinking “my life was over.” But Shaun had an edge over many street kids: “one caring parent.” Now nearly 23, he lives with his mother in Toronto and, after getting job counselling, works for a building maintenance firm, sweeping, mopping—and feeling good. “I can wake up and smile and say, Yeah, I like myself.’ I couldn’t do that for years and years.”

Then there’s Christina Wayvon, who was kicked out of her house in Windsor, Ont., when she was all of 13. She eventually settled in Toronto, crashing on couches or in parks or, come winter, by indoor bank machines. She recalls Christmases: ‘You’d go into the Eaton Centre to get warm and it’s everywhere, it’s in your face— you remember the stuff you used to have, like a winter coat, and wonder if you’ll ever have those things again. Then you get very angry at people who do, which of course isn’t fair but you still get angry.”

Christina’s street life lasted six years, but “I don’t want this to be some sob story—I’d rather focus on achievements.” And Christina has achieved: scraping together borrowed cash and welfare payments, she took an apartment. She got counselling. She finished high school (straight As). She’s 26 now and a thirdyear university student, hell-bent on becoming a doctor to the poor and homeless. She still bridles at the stereotype that street kids are lazy: “That isn’t true. They don’t know how to get out of their situation, they have no life skills, so why isn’t the focus on teaching them how to be presentable, to have confidence? How’re they supposed to think they’re better when everyone’s telling them they’re worse?”

There are no miracles here. Housing, money, dedicated street workers, old-fashioned values like tolerance and caring. And kids with the will to survive, to push on. “In spite of all the odds,” says Steve Gaetz, health promoter at Toronto’s Shout clinic for street youth, “in spite of all the crap, in spite of all the traps around drugs, a lot of them are strong and move forward.”

Others, of course, sadly don’t. Sally recalls returning to Toronto this year and running into a guy she’d known in 1992, still on the street. “I said, What’re you doing here, man?’ And he was like, ‘I need money for... whatever.’ I couldn’t believe it. I’d looked up to him back then—because he was nice, he was older than me, he seemed to be doing all right. Of course,” and she smiles slightly, seemingly embracing the distance she’s come, “I had a different concept then of what’s doing all right.”