When Katherine McParland was five, she fled to a women’s shelter with her mother who was escaping an abusive relationship. At 13 she was placed in a foster home and then moved through a succession of them through her teenage years. She says those foster homes taught her a lot.
“They taught me how to couch surf and sleep in strange places. I learned how to tote all my belongings in garbage bags. I learned how to be homeless at a quite young age through foster care.”
McParland told her story to about 100 people at a conference on youth homelessness last week in Nelson. She now runs A Way Home, a program in Kamloops that employs a unique set of community partnerships to help homeless youth in new ways, and which is being emulated in other parts of the country.
She said foster care is “the superhighway to homelessness.” If foster homes are not meeting kids’ needs, they tend to run away but have nowhere to go.
“They are making decisions with their feet. They are running away from these placements and are told they are choosing homelessness. I beg to differ. I say they are choosing to find a sense of belonging and we, as communities, need to create this for them.”
She said runaway kids find that sense of belonging with their peers on the street.
“I lived in foster homes where the fridge was locked, so my foster sister and I were accessing the food bank every day.”
She also sometimes lived in group homes.
“There was a group of us kids that no one wanted. They could not find foster homes to take us, and one evening we wrote on the window SPCA FOR KIDS. Us kids identified with the abandoned animals. It was a shoutout for help.”
At 19, McParland aged out of foster care. All government help ended.
“I ended up joining my foster siblings on the street because that was my sense of belonging. That was my family. Shortly after, I met a very abusive man that kicked in the door of my first residence.
“The landlord did not fix the door so the man could get in whenever he wanted. I would try and jump out the window. Eventually I got evicted and all of my items were on the front porch on the first day of snow in November with nowhere to go.
“On the street a group of us youth took a cardboard sign and wrote on it: ‘Youth are aging out of foster care into homelessness, you need to help.’ We taped it to the Ministry of Children and Families’ door. This was our first experience of social justice work.”
Rick Kutzner, a youth outreach worker in Nelson, says much of his caseload involves young people aging out of care. But he says attitudes toward them tend to be more empathic than toward older homeless people “because it is like they don’t have a choice. There will be curiosity about what happened to them, and where are their parents.”
But there is still a stigma, he says, when it comes to youth finding housing.
“I get it,” Kutzner says. “If I am a homeowner, I am going to want the young professional tenant,” or, as McParland puts it, “that shiny university student.”
“I know what I was like at that age,” Kutzner says. “I would not want to rent to me.”
McParland said youth homelessness does not look like adult homelessness. It’s less visible.
“It’s not people on the streets pushing shopping carts. You may be walking beside a homeless young person and have no idea that last evening they had no place to stay.”
She said there are many forms of youth homelessness, ranging from permanent homelessness with kids sleeping in parkades and along the river banks, to episodic homelessness where kids move in and out of a home, to “survival rape” in which predators take young girls in but at a cost.
Youth do not do well in adult homeless shelters, McParland said, because they can be victimized there. She recalls seeing “a number of young homeless people hanging out with older men, and there was a young person who had just aged out of care who connected with an older person who had been on the streets for years and they were shooting up heroin.
“So I gathered a group of people in an abandoned building. We had no chairs, sitting on the floor, seven people, I would harass them into coming, and we [eventually] would have 40 people at a meeting.”
She eventually invited some government managers and politicians.
“I knew that day when people came in with suits that something incredible was about to happen.”
Since then, A Way Home Kamloops has done some innovative things, including creating a youth homelessness action plan that led to the Kamloops Housing Wrap Force. The centralized housing and support intake system now includes 16 organizations and government departments that use the same intake and consent forms so youth don’t have to share their information multiple times.
They have created a continuum of youth housing options including supportive housing, some of it specific to young mothers and Indigenous youth. Through partnerships with businesses and landlords, the group also provides rental subsidies.
As a registered non-profit, the organization takes out leases on behalf of tenants. Thompson Rivers University provides five bursaries a year to the housing program’s participants.
Kamloops city councillor Tina Lange, who successfully nominated McParland for the 2017 YMCA-YWCA Peace Medal, wrote that McParland “has a paid position to coordinate wrap-around services for all troubled youth, but what she has done goes miles beyond what she is paid to do. With lived experience she has turned the concept of homeless youth on its head… She has inspired landlords, business owners, Thompson Rivers University (and governments) to open their eyes to the financial and social cost of ignoring homeless youth. Everyone who meets her wants to help.”