Town and high school working to address teen homelessness in Morinville

By Stephen Dafoe

Morinville – Tyler (not his real name) sits at the long table in the kitchen of his friend’s family home, a home that will provide a roof over his head for the next while. Just how long he does not know. He sits down to tell his story, a story of no longer living in his mom and dad’s house for the two past months. His eyes dart suspiciously at the recorder that will capture that story, and being assured the recorder is purely to get his story right, he begins to tell it, his fingers rapping on the table top in what appears to be movements designed to comfort him.

“I was asked to leave,” the 16-year-old said of leaving the family home at the beginning of the school year. “I just wasn’t getting along with my parents, and we both thought it would be better if I found somewhere else to live.”

That somewhere else from the beginning of September until last Saturday night was a friend’s garage. Not a garage converted to an apartment, but a garage with a couch; laundry no longer folded by a parent but done by himself at a laundromat or another friend’s home. But the garage was a roof over his head, and one the homeless youth was glad for, even though he appears happier inside the house now, even if that house is not his home.

Previously employed, he used his income to purchase food after being asked to leave; however, he said he is no longer working at his old job and, having lost his social security card, is presently unable to get a job without the number.
Attendance at school ended last year for the 16-year-old; working the night shift at his job left him in a situation where he cut a lot of classes, a situation that was part of the motivation behind his being asked to leave. But although independent of family and school, he is still making efforts to get an education. “I’m doing correspondence,” he said. “I do modules.”

From the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice, it is certain the young man is not thrilled with his situation. “It’s not that great,” he said of his life over the past two months. “It could be worse, I guess.” While he accepts the reality of his situation, he accepts it could also be better, a reality whereby he returns to his home, to his room, and to his belongings. Yet that reality seems implausible and unattainable now. Although he has talked to his mother a few times over the past two months, it seems for him the door to returning home remains closed. Two months after being asked to leave, the young man doesn’t lay the blame entirely on the parents, but accepts that part of it was on him. “We were fighting a lot, and I was skipping a lot of classes,” he said. “We just generally weren’t getting along.”

While his hopes of returning to the family home seem unobtainable, his shorter-term goals include simply finding a job, employment that will allow him to get a leg up. His longer-term goals include fulltime employment, perhaps in a trade. He smiles at the notion, his eyes brighten a bit.

School aware of homelessness situation and looking to help

For Tyler (again not his real name) there is no knowledge of other young people in Morinville presently in his present predicament. In fact, Morinville Community High School Principal Todd Eistetter estimates there have been between five and 10 teens (the number fluctuates) in transient and homeless situations this year. But Eistetter and his staff can really only assist those they know about, and those they know about are likely to be enrolled in MCHS, not drop outs like the 16-year-old contemplating his situation at a friend’s kitchen table.

“Any student that we know of, we try to get as many supports as possible in place, looking at any outside service agencies we can,” Eistetter said. “Whatever we feel is most appropriate for them in their circumstances.”

Since taking the helm at MCHS in September, the principal has been made aware of several students who are no longer living at home. “They’ve left their family home either voluntarily or un-voluntarily, and are crashing at friends’ homes,” Eistetter said. “Some are in what could be considered flop houses. So we do have situations like that. The exact number: It is less than 10, but it is in the neighbourhood of five.” For a student population of approximately 600, the percentage is small but the number too high for Eistetter’s liking. “That’s five students too many, if that is the number at any one time.”
Although the students may be homeless, whether they and their families accept the reality of the term, there seems to be a desire among them to come to school. Eistetter believes this is largely due to the social nature of school. “School is a stable environment for them,” he said. “They know what to expect, they know what the expectations are, and it just provides some consistency for them. If they are going from place to place couch surfing at friends, it’s really up and down as to what they can expect, how long they can be there. With the school, it’s always here.”

For Eistetter and his staff, that being there is not merely figurative but quite literal. The principal said staff and programs are in place at and within MCHS to assist in ensuring school is their safe place, and that they can get the help they need. But the principal said they are unable to assist if they are unaware of the situation. “We deal with what we know,” he said. “If there is a situation where the student is transitioning from home to home or from the family home, we may not know of it for a period of time until something happens. Then we hear of it. The more knowledge we have, the easier it is.”

Town on board to assist

The Town of Morinville is also looking for information on the homeless situation, both in terms of getting an idea of how big the problem is and dispensing information that might assist youth and families.

Morinville’s interim Chief Administrative Officer, Debbie Oyarzun, said the matter has come to light over the past couple of weeks after a town employee, who is a member of CORElyncs, brought the info back to administration. Oyarzun said the practice of teens moving from home to home in the community has been referred to as couch surfing, but she has asked staff not to use the term. “To me, it truly doesn’t describe the situation or the potential severity of it,” The CAO said. “To me, when you say things like couch surfing to the kids that might be [interpreted to be] more trendy or cool. It doesn’t actually speak to how severe the situation could get.”

But using the proper terminology within the confines of Morinville’s administrative circle is not the end of the Town of Morinville’s involvement in the matter. Oyarzun said at this time she does not know how severe the issue is in Morinville, but has a feeling youth have begun to talk about it in the community based on the recent seminars with Ian Hill and the work being done through the Town’s Youth Strategy. “We had engaged a lot of youth at that time, and I think it [homelessness] kind of bubbled up to the top,” she said, adding now that the issue has surfaced, the Town is looking to help get the message out as an educational or awareness piece. “There might be people whose kids have their friends staying overnight and the parents might not even realize what the situation is. We’re hoping if we can get some more education and awareness out there, we can identify it and actually try and get a handle on it.”

Oyarzun said the Town has a number of programs in place and in the works, including parent coffee talks and sessions put on by Parent Place in St. Albert, initiatives that could assist with the root causes of youth leaving their family homes. Additionally, the CAO said she wants to ensure the Town of Morinville has the right contacts and resources in place for both parents and youth who are or potentially could be in a situation.

Although the CAO believes the initiatives could help with some root causes, she is aware that some root causes for youth leaving or being kicked out of their homes is beyond the Town’s or its Family and Community Support Services’ (FCSS) ability to help with. “If the family is truly dysfunctional, where the child shouldn’t necessarily be there, that’s a whole different thing than what we are talking about,” Oyarzun said. “That’s where you need to get Children’s Services involved.” Oyarzun explained the Town of Morinville wants to make sure they have the resourses and sources in place to assist those who are in temporary homeless situation and prevent them from experiencing longer-term homelessness.

The mere idea some youth are experiencing periods of time as transients with no permanent address is something the interim CAO finds disheartening. “I see Morinville as that family community,” she said. “That’s why I think anything we can do to increase that education and awareness, and help people in how to handle those difficult situations – we need to step up there and do that.”

Help is at hand for youth and parents

One town employee whose job involves working with youth and parents in the community is Morinville’s FCSS Coordinator, Amy Dribnenky. It is her department that can assist families who find themselves in a homeless youth situation.
“If there is somebody that is experiencing problems with finances or shelter, they can definitely come in and see us,” Dribnenky said, adding her department works with a number of agencies that can provide additional resources and assistance. “Even if they are staying somewhere, they need some additional help.

Dribnenky said the Town of Morinville has a Wrap Around program comprised of representatives from a number of different agencies. “Basically what it is is we wrap around the family to give them the resources they need to be successful,” Dribnenky said, adding her door is open to anyone in the community who needs help. “One of the parts of my job is to work with people that are currently going through issues. I’m definitely a listening ear for a lot of people in the community. Sometimes they need to know what’s out there. Sometimes they need to know there is somebody out there. My door is always open.”

The FCSS coordinator said her confidential discussions provide her with the info to go to work to help find the resources for people that may be applicable to their specific situation. Dribnenky can be reached at 780-939-7832.

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  1. I find it hard to imagine putting one of my kids to the street regardless of the problems being experience, but yet I know of it happening. Within the Family Law Act, if parents divorce, the child is “entitled” to be supported by both parents until their education is finished or otherwise as listed in the legal separation contract. As a support payer if you miss one child support payment you are referred to as a “deadbeat”, yet here we have both parents slamming the door on a child that wishes to continue their education despite the family hardships, why are they are not being held liable??? I wonder if more effort on their part would be forth coming if the Courts stepped in and demanded payments from both parents so that this lad could better support himself outside of their home. Why it is Social Services cannot step in and identify this child as being displaced with no way back into the home and then aid him in the follow through with petitioning the Courts for support payments? Grant you, support payments aren’t the answer to this problem, but maybe if parents where held financially liable, the motivation to try harder may exist.

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