It is a startling fact. At any given time, approximately 1% of children in Alberta will be involved with foster care.
44% of adults experiencing homelessness report having had experience with foster care.
According to a 2009 report by the BC Representative for children and youth, youth in care are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized for mental health issues than the general public. By 21 years of age, 41 percent of children and youth in care will have contact with the criminal justice system, compared to only 6.6 percent of the general population in the same age group.
Put another way, involvement in the foster care system nurtures homelessness, mental health issues, criminal justice interactions and other risky behaviours in children just as we nurture resiliency, self-sufficiency, self-confidence in our children.
To be fair to the people providing foster care, it is not ‘them’ creating the issue. Many wonderful, well-meaning and competent caring people foster children in their homes.
It is more systemic. More foundational. We believe foster care works.
In that belief we overlook the impact lack of permanency has on the child. As reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Children who have a government as their parent, no matter how well-intentioned or necessary that arrangement is, are often damaged by it… They are damaged because multiple moves to living arrangements with multiple caregivers – no matter how loving the foster parents – do not promote stability, security and attachment, the building blocks every child and youth needs to succeed.” (Trupin EW, Tarico VS, Low BP, et al. Children on child protective service case-loads: prevalence and nature of serious emotional disturbance. Child Abuse Negl 1993;17-345-55.)
To end homelessness in adults, we must stop fostering it in children.
This thought came top of mind this morning when a girlfriend sent me a link to one of the stories from the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre’s project Shelter from the Storm. I am in awe of this project which was spearheaded by Michael Frisby two years ago. It is powerful, moving and soulful. I wanted to find the times for a concert, Verses vs Homelessness, that is happening this weekend and went to the DI’s website and on the homepage, the video they did of a child’s journey into adulthood, and homelessness, played automatically.
This is a powerful, and haunting, story.
One of the actors is a client of the DI. Has been for way too long. His journey into homelessness began in adulthood with the breakdown of his marriage, an unaddressed addiction and a prolonged journey through self-defeating behaviours that lead him into homelessness. The seeds of that journey were planted in childhood. They may never have sprouted if he had not experienced the breakdown of his marriage and the subsequent loss of his relationship with his child. He may not have known the challenges of homelessness if he hadn’t succumbed to an addiction that has haunted him for years. He once told me, “I hate myself so I drink and once sober, I remember why I hate myself and so, I drink again to forget”.
An emergency shelter should never become a longterm home for anyone. But too often it does. Not because the individual chooses it, but mostly because the other options seem too daunting, too scary, too impossible to even be considered. The man in the video has thought about housing. He’s thought about leaving. He’s thought about moving on. But always, the lure of the familiar calls him back. The community of understanding draws him in. And his fear of what will happen to him beyond the world he has come to know so well, traps him from stepping out.
We don’t know what it’s like to be homeless. We don’t know what happens to someone’s psyche when they lose everything and find themselves in the one place they never imagined they would end up.
We just don’t know.
In Shelter from the Storm, Michael and all the performers share the experience through song and verse and music and story. They are giving us an insider’s view of the loss and pain and sorrow that is called homelessness.
These are important stories to hear. What’s even more important, is that we stop creating opportunities for these stories to become someone’s life. and that begins with taking care of the children.
To stop homelessness in the future, we need to stop doing the things that foster the growth of it in children today.