Walking into the Youth Empowerment & Support Services (formerly the Youth Emergency Shelter) on a cold November evening, Savannah Eshleman was anxious and shaky. She had left home after a confrontation with her guardian and ended up at a nearby gas station where a friendly stranger offered her a ride to the shelter.
At 17, she had no criminal record, no history of substance abuse and had never spent a night on the street. Yet here she was seeking refuge for the evening among rough-looking, possibly volatile, street kids.
“You’re freaking out,” recalls Savannah, now at the age of majority. “You’re already dealing with your own troubles and then there are all these badass kids whose stories are worse than yours, who are more intense and may be into drugs and gangs.”
Past the front desk, Savannah joined the rush to claim a bed, store belongings, grab a shower and get something to eat. In combat boots, dark clothes and short-cropped hair, she tried to blend in, but she remembers being afraid and self-conscious. An underlying tension permeated the room as kids took each other’s measures, trading stories and joking about life on the street as a way of testing one another.
“I felt like, if I don’t act like I’m cool with this then I could get the shit beat out of me,” she says. She hid her insecurity as best she could, but inside she was reeling. “I was shaking, wide-eyed, I’m pretty sure I was in shock, I don’t even know what the hell … it was surreal.”
Little did she know she had made one of the best decisions of her life.
In most respects, Savannah was a normal kid, a bright Strathcona High School student who liked to read. She volunteered at the library and she was particularly fond of social studies and art. But her home life was chaotic.
While she doesn’t like to share too much about her troubled family history, it says something that she knew exactly where to go, having noted the shelter’s location while taking the bus to school. “I was always waiting for the ball to drop,” she deadpans. “It just seemed like it would, eventually.”
That still didn’t make the move any easier. For the anxious youth, being out on her own was scary. Her self-esteem had been crushed. She had no job, no plan, nowhere else to turn.
“Under Alberta law, you can live independently at 16,” says Emily Keating, Youth Empowerment & Support Services communications coordinator. “So the idea is that you can fend for yourself when you reach that age. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many 16-year-olds who are prepared for that.”
To make matters worse, many street-bound youth are coping with mental-health problems, addiction, physical and sexual abuse. For kids like Savannah — kids still trying to finish school — paying rent is nearly impossible on part-time, low-wage jobs, says Keating. But if a youth doesn’t have “status” with social services by the time he or she reaches that magical cutoff age, there’s little social support available.
As Keating explains, “At YESS, we try to fill that awkward gap between 16 to 18, where Children’s Services doesn’t have much available and the adult system hasn’t kicked in.”
During the first couple weeks, Savannah carried on with everyday life as best she could. She went to school in the day, then, every night, waited for the shelter’s 9 p.m. nightly intake to roll around so she could go back to the old brown brick building by the Mill Creek Ravine.
With only 26 shelter beds, there’s never a guarantee that everyone will get a spot. In 2011, the shelter had to turn 141 youths back onto the streets because there wasn’t enough room. (YESS puts the actual number much higher, noting that many left before they could be counted.) In all, over 3,000 youth access YESS programs in a year, and Keating estimates the number of homeless youth could be much higher. “It’s a hidden population,” she says.
The shelter area consists of washrooms, a common kitchen space and two hostel-style rooms filled with bunks — one room for boys, one for girls. Aside from a few square feet of bed, the only other personal space Savannah had was a small locker for her belongings. Not that she had much to stuff in there. When she left home, she’d had to leave most of her things behind, including her cherished pet gecko, Tiki. But while Savannah was worried about her pet, she had more important things on her mind, like figuring out what she was going to do.
She didn’t want to stay in the shelter indefinitely. Her dream had been to finish high school and go on to university, perhaps as an art major. But until she had a little more stability in her life, she wasn’t sure how to make that happen.
Two and a half weeks passed. Then Savannah got word she had been accepted into YESS’s long-term residency program, Skills for Youth (SkY).
Up one floor from the shelter, SkY residents live in shared dormitory rooms with one other roommate. It was a relief not to have to undergo nightly admission, but now she would have to earn her keep.
SkY residents are required to attend anacceptable day program — a school, a job or a counselling and recovery program — for a minimum of 35 hours per week, and pitch in with daily chores. In addition, each resident meets regularly with a “key worker” who offers guidance and counselling.
“We put a greater emphasis on life skills and practical skills because we’ve found that what is keeping kids on the street … is that they don’t have the basic skills they need to live on their own,” says Keating. “Without that they’re back on the street again and there wasn’t anything being done to prevent that.”
Savannah and her key worker bonded over chess. Bent over the board studying pawns, knights and bishops, they would talk about school, obscure sci-fi flicks and her plans for the future. “I don’t know how many games of chess we played,” she says, “but that’s usually where we’d talk. Key workers are your friend, but at the same time they’re your mentor.”
The chessboard conversations stoked Savannah’s ambition and she began applying to university programs. Before long she got an acceptance letter granting entrance into the University of Alberta’s fine arts program. There was only one problem: She had no money for tuition.
And then, literally, opportunity knocked.
“One night I got a knock on my door,” she recalls. She was escorted into the office, where all the key workers were assembled. “They were like, ‘Savannah, we need to talk.’”
Savannah’s stomach dropped. Facing a room full of counsellors, she felt panicky. “I thought, I’m getting kicked out. I don’t know what’s happened but I’m getting kicked out.”
Instead, one of the key workers handed her a letter from a donor offering to pay for a four-year university education for a YESS client. “I really romanticized university, so to be able to go — without having to work long hours at crappy jobs to afford it — was like a dream.”
Shortly after, Savannah moved into Start House, the last step in YESS’s graduated residence program. While key workers are always available to offer help if needed, for the most part Start residents are independent.
Within about a month, Savannah found her own apartment and a good part-time job. In fall 2011, nearly a year after she had left home, she started university. Now 18, her hair is still cropped short but her fashion sense has matured. And the tough-girl façade is gone. In its place, confidence and humble aspiration.
Last summer, while Savannah was still in Start, Tiki the gecko died prematurely. And a hectic work-school schedule doesn’t leave much time for a social life. But she considers herself fortunate.
If she hadn’t gotten into the shelter on that cold November night, Savannah says, she would have ended up under the bridge. Instead, she was offered a chance to realize her potential. But for every bright young artist, scientist, entrepreneur or humanitarian that graduates from YESS, how many more are lost to the street?