Great Idea: Home: A Universal Longing

If the streets feel safer than what teens experience in their own home, then these youth are at risk. For more than 400 young people in the Kitchener-Waterloo area this is their reality.  No matter how difficult a young person’s life has been, no matter how long the trail of broken promises or the absence of caring adults, the dream of a safe welcoming environment, a hot meal, and friendly faces around the table is universal.  Their youth and inexperience only makes them more vulnerable, more uncertain of themselves and their future. At Safe Haven Youth Services these young people get a respite from living rough. Many have never experienced the comfort of sitting down for a family meal.

Safe Haven Youth Services incorporates several programs as an outreach for young people at risk. A crisis program for youth 12-18 provides short term overnight stays. Youth entering treatment programs can also find short term housing there. One of the shelter’s goals is to prepare youth for independent living. Each night Safe Haven Youth Services can house up to 10 young people in crisis. Food is a big part of their programming. Through Cooking Toward Independence, youth participate in a skill-based program that focus on nutrition, health and wellness, budgeting, food preparation and food safety.

Through the coaching and support of the staff, youth learn the cooking and baking skills that they can take with them when they graduate to living independently. They will learn how to budget for food and where to access food hamper programs within the community. A food hamper is often used as a concrete object lesson.  How do you create three meals out of it, how do you manage leftovers, and what items do you buy in order make a complete meal out of leftovers? When these skills are mastered they are a step closer to independence. Youth are responsible for preparing one meal a week for their peers.

Lindsay White, the program supervisor, says that they work closely with a number of government agencies and community partners. The shelter receives 90% of its food from The Food Bank of Waterloo Region. “There isn’t food insecurity here because we don’t have to worry about where we are going to get our food each day. We know the kids are going to have a variety of good quality food.” The Food Bank delivers twice a week using refrigerated trucks, providing enough perishable and non-perishable items for 3 meals a day and snacks. Through this generosity the young people receive a wide variety of quality food. “Youth have indicated that they enjoy learning new skills and find comfort in not worrying about having enough to eat during their stay at Safe Haven Youth Services,” says White. “Quite honestly, many of them can’t believe they can just walk to the cupboard or refrigerator and access food.”

For the staff at Safe Haven Youth the preparation of the meals and the meals themselves are an opportunity to build relationships with those currently in the program. Sitting down for a meal together is a great equalizer. “The youth are involved in the preparation and cooking (and they love it).  It’s a great way to build relationships and have open conversations with them,” says White.

Safe Haven Youth Services provides three avenues for their clients:

  • Crisis Services: offers immediate admission to the shelter on a 24 hour/7day a week basis to youth ages 12 through their 18th birthday who need a safe place to stay.
  • Respite Support: offers parents/caregivers and youth a break from each other when there are difficulties in their home environments.
  • Life Launch services offers shelter and supports to youth who have accessed Crisis Services and are looking for housing options.

The organization works to provide every young person with the resources and support to address their immediate crises, learn the skills necessary to prevent a re-occurrence and, if needed, to find housing and live independently.

There is no established daytime programming at Safe Haven, although the youth are provided with 3 meals and snacks. In the afternoon youth can watch TV, play foosball, or help out with the cooking. Evening programs such as art therapy, anger management, and job skills are available. Safe Haven’s goal is to offers a safe environment within which youth can develop life skills as well as social skills, grow in self-esteem, and learn how to manage their emotions.

The centre provides nutritious food, a laundry, shower facilities, and access to medical care, all intended to model the importance of health and wellness. Regular school attendance is encouraged and educational support is available. Participation in regular community activities is promoted. Securing sustainable housing within a homeless youth’s community is given priority, should family life become untenable. Connecting youth to community based services ensures ongoing support.

According to staff, there are many success stories. Sally’s success is but one of these. Sally was admitted to Safe Haven Youth Services after being asked to leave home due to ongoing parent-teen conflict, as well as her own mental health issues. She remained at Safe Haven Youth Services for 6 months where she prepared for an independent life. During her time at Safe Haven, Sally found support for her emerging mental health needs through staff and community resources. She continued to attend school and eventually graduated. Throughout her stay she searched for appropriate independent housing. Sally participated in the Cooking Toward Independence program and found that she enjoyed baking. On one survey Sally wrote, “I have never cooked for myself before. I had no idea how to go about preparing a healthy meal. Staff supported me in the kitchen and now I enjoy cooking and know how to use food in food hampers to make something healthy.” Sally did achieve independent living and has found stable housing.

Whether the youth arrive at the shelter in crisis, schedule a short term stay, or are simply there to give their parents a break, they will find community and support regardless of their circumstances. Safe Haven Youth Services exists only because of the dollars raised through community fundraising and the generosity of the local food bank. Most importantly, this organization provides a place where vulnerable and troubled teens can find a refuge, however temporary, and gain some of the skills necessary to create a home of their own. The desire for a home is a universal longing. Healing, hope, and a brighter future can begin around a supper table through a welcoming circle of people sharing a hot meal.

By Alison Zenisek