Homelessness among teenagers is an invisible epidemic, says Dawne Tomlinson, principal of Langley Secondary.
“You will see homeless adults in Langley but you won’t see homeless teenagers because they are invisible. They wear all the right things and stuff because they are so much more vulnerable if they look homeless: vulnerable in school, vulnerable on the street. So the key is to hide it,” said Tomlinson.
“These kids could be couch surfing for months before we find out. We had two kids living in the parking garage at a casino. They just found themselves a little parkade so they had shelter and were sitting on the floor. Fourteen year olds.
“I had another 14-year-old who couldn’t go back home. It was Friday and the ministry (Children and Family Development) couldn’t step in fast enough. He said he was going to stay with friends but then he texted a counsellor saying his friends couldn’t take him and we were panicking because we didn’t want him out on the street.
“I kept texting him all weekend saying, ‘I’ll come and pick you up and take you to your grandparents.’ He did stay somewhere but we are not quite sure where.”
As for the rate of homelessness, “sometimes we don’t have any but sometimes we have eight or 10. It’s an invisible epidemic. It’s all around us,” said Tomlinson.
Usually a child runs from home because it feels unsafe, she added.
“I don’t want to generalize but violence in the home is a big one. It could be unsafe physically or emotionally. Usually by the time they leave, damage has been done. So they go to a friend’s house and when they’re not welcome anymore, they’ll go to another friend’s and sometimes families will take them in and then call us,” she said.
When asked what kind of homes they are leaving, Tomlinson hesitated.
“More often it’s parents who don’t have any coping or parenting skills. There could be an issue with addiction — either with the parent or the kid. Addiction can be a big one.”
So too, can poverty.
“Poverty, unemployment. Parents who don’t have the skills to look after themselves let alone a kid who as a child might have been compliant but as a teenager is not as easy to deal with.”
There is poverty in her school, which she describes as “half inner-city, half not.”
“We have a lot of hunger and we feed about 60 kids breakfast and lunch. It costs $13,000 a year, all paid for by donations. Now we are organizing Christmas hampers and gift cards so kids can buy food or clothing. We have 35 on the list.”
The school needs help from the community and is asking Adopt-A-School for money to buy bus tickets for impoverished students.
Many students have moved out of the school’s catchment area due to poverty or a breakdown at home.
“They want to keep coming because they have found a home and success here but they can’t afford the bus. We have kids living in Surrey, Abbotsford, Aldergrove — and Langley’s a pretty big place itself,” she said.
“A lot of our kids love their school. They might not always love being in class, but this is their safe place. If they are hungry, they will get fed, if they need help, they’ll be helped, and if they are homeless, we will work with them.
“We want to remove all these barriers so kids can graduate and have a chance at a quality life. But first we need them to get here. And lack of a bus ticket is a major barrier.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)