Skip to main content

Renfrew House became a safe landing for Jordan Williams, 20, after he ‘aged out’ of his provincially funded apartment and on-and-off stays in homeless shelters.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

At 20, Jordan Williams has his own room in a comfortable house, a housekeeping schedule that involves him in making meals, and social workers to give him the support he needs to finish his Grade 12.

His current home – Renfrew House, a six-bedroom home in East Vancouver for youth aged 18 to 24 – has become a safe landing after he "aged out" of his provincially funded apartment and the on-and-off stays in homeless shelters before that. It's a spot few in his position are fortunate enough to find.

Even before youth in care turn 19, stable, secure housing can be elusive.

This week, The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the province's decision to close 23 group homes after an internal investigation found weapons and pornography in some of the homes and employees with criminal records – including two with charges pending – working with vulnerable youth. A youth who had been staying in one of the homes, Alex Gervais, died at the age of 18 after being placed in a hotel.

Once youth turn 19 and lose government support, it can be nearly impossible to secure safe, affordable housing.

Renfrew House, believed by its partners to be perhaps the only specialized housing for youth of its kind, helps them navigate the perilous transition from the child-care system to adulthood. It is also designed to stem a pattern that can see these youths slip into chronic homelessness.

"That's such a common story – from one day to the next, they're homeless, because their youth agreement has ended or their ministry coverage has ended," says Dr. Steve Mathias, a psychiatrist at Providence Health Care's Inner City Youth Mental Health Program. "And often you see this steep decline."

Here, youth get a chance to spread their wings, with staff and support to catch them if they fall. The facility provides housing, life-skills training and support to six youth at a time, most of whom stay between three to six months before "graduating" – going on to live independently, ideally with a job.

Before he turned 19, Mr. Williams lived in a Lower Mainland apartment under a youth agreement, an arrangement between a youth and B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development that provides housing and other assistance to youth who want to live independently.

After his 19th birthday, that assistance ended and he had to make other arrangements – which in his case meant heading back to the shelters that had been his primary living arrangement since leaving home at 16.

"I had to leave the place I was staying at … a month afterwards [turning 19], I had to figure out another plan, so I was back in the shelter system," Mr. Williams says. "It was unfortunate for sure."

The house opened a year ago and since then, 21 youth have stayed there. It is a dry facility – that is, not a low-barrier shelter that allows drugs and alcohol – and residents are subject to a curfew. Programming is built around the idea of teaching life skills: meal planning, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, money management and career and education planning. Two trained staff are on-site around the clock.

Some residents may have schizophrenia, others may struggle with depression or learning disabilities and still others may be dealing with drug or alcohol abuse.

The common denominator, Dr. Mathias says, is "really a young person trying to move toward independence."

Samantha Cuhadar is a former foster child who says she "hasn't really had parents in forever."

She was homeless for eight months before moving into Renfrew House about a month ago. She is currently working in a coffee shop.

"The biggest change is comfort in being able to come back to a place," she says. "I can come home and I can sleep. I don't need to worry, is my stuff gone, is my locker being taken apart … staying at a shelter, one of the biggest fears is being beaten up.

"There's nobody to do that here."

The house is in a residential neighbourhood. The province bought it last year for $1.6-million. An early open house was packed with neighbours who were worried about property values, safety and drug use. Since then, those concerns have died down.

Residents are referred to Renfrew House through a variety of channels, including Covenant House and St. Paul's Hospital.

Funding for Renfrew House came from the provincial Ministry of Health, as part of a plan announced in 2013 to address severe addiction and mental health in all regions of the province.

The annual budget for the facility is about $1.3-million a year, which includes $400,000 for clinical support. Renfrew House is operated jointly by Coast Mental Health, a non-profit society, and Inner City Youth Mental Health Program, an outreach team that works with youth living on the street.

To date, there has been no formal research into the return on investment of extending the social safety net. But Dr. Mathias sees it in the "graduates" who have gone on to jobs and hopes that Renfrew House can be replicated in other jurisdictions.

"Helping them at that point is an incredible investment opportunity," he says.