By: KIRSTEN FENN
“Three years ago I would have told you I’d be dead by the time I was 21.”
The day his parents kicked him out of their Hawkesbury home – the night of his 18th birthday – Corey Illings spent $300 on drugs and slept outside his high school as punishment for what he’d done.
At first, there was just the alcohol abuse. The drugs followed as a result of both curiosity and peer pressure, the peak of mounting stress caused by bullying and a tense home environment.
Since the age of 16, Illings spent his nights sleeping on friends’ couches or in the streets. It always started the same way — an argument with his parents — and ended with the front door slamming behind him as he headed for some place better.
With one small food bank in Hawkesbury, no shelter for the homeless but the barren streets, and little work to be found, Illings decided there was nothing left for him there. That summer, in July 2010, he packed his belongings in two cardboard boxes and headed to Ottawa for a fresh start.
Nearly three years later, 20-year-old Illings is deep in concentration as he works on his tablet in the student commons lounge of Algonquin College. He is studying to become a social worker and spends most of his time here — if he’s not volunteering at youth shelters around Ottawa.
“When I’m done I wanna do basically what the people who are working with me right now are doing for me,” he says.
Since arriving in Ottawa, Illings has become clean, found subsidized housing, had his mental health disorders diagnosed, and started college, with help from staff and services at Operation Come Home (OCH) and the Youth Services Bureau (YSB), two local homeless shelters for youth.
“Whether it’s mental health, addiction, sexual health, education, employment, financial literacy – we can offer it, and we do all the time,” said Natalie Elliott, co-manager of operations at OCH.
“But actually, they are the ones that need to ask for help,” she said.
Illings, who said he always saw college as part of his plan, asked for OCH’s assistance applying to Algonquin. Because it wasn’t possible for his parents to sign the forms, OCH helped him complete the paperwork and provided him with a credit card to pay his tuition.
In need of income for school, he became a paid employee of OCH’s Bottle Works program, collecting empty liquor, beer, and wine bottles from local restaurants, under the supervision of OCH staff.
He also enrolled in the Job Action Centre (JAC), which helps youth build their resume, create a cover letter, and equips them with basic employment skills. The program provides youth with Smart Serve, First Aid, and WHMIS training free of charge, and finds them a job with a local employer.
But even with support programs, Illings had no stable place to live or means to afford it.
He spent his nights in warm parking garage elevators, where boot marks still stain the doors he huddled behind. Or he would sleep in the corner of the parking lot, lying beside litter and gum spots on the cold concrete floor. He would be lucky if he wasn’t woken by a police officer.
While YSB has two 30-bed facilities that provide emergency and transitional housing – one for males and one for females, they are always at capacity, if not over, said Jane Fjeld, associate director of YSB.
OCH’s Housing Works project provides 10 youth with subsidized housing each year, but offers no emergency beds.
Illings currently lives in one of 65 transitional housing units which are subsidized by YSB. Each month he pays $150 in rent, and the other half is paid for him.
But with many youth staying in transitional facilities for more than a few years due to lack of affordable housing options, the wait list of youth looking for support continues to grow, and homelessness persists, said Fjeld.
“If you have to spend a good part of your day figuring out where you’re going to sleep, that’s anxiety producing, and it’s depressive in its very nature,” said Fjeld.
“You want to be safe, you want to be warm, you want to be fed,” she said “Those are just basic things that everybody needs to maintain some decent mental health.”
While Illings said he believes his ADHD and borderline personality disorder developed as a young teenager, the stress of homelessness exacerbated the issue.
According to a YSB forum from 2010, many homeless youth feel they have no choice when it comes to housing. The lack of accessible, affordable housing options not only leaves them living on the streets, but it makes it hard for them to stay in school, the report stated.
“You could be living on the streets for two to four years before you can get housing,” said Elliott of homeless youth who apply to OCH’s Housing Works program.
As part of Canada’s Homeless Partnering Strategy, which was renewed this February until 2014, CHEO has received a $77,000 research grant to work with YSB on finding solutions to youth homelessness.
“We want to think about how we can provide more targeted interventions faster, when needed, and stay ahead of the curb, not always behind the curb,” said Fjeld.
“The end game is never to stay in a shelter for the rest of your life,” she said.
Eric Bollman, who has known Illings since they met at an OCH event two years ago, said Illings has always wanted to move on and escape those circumstances.
“If it wasn’t for coming here, I’d probably still be selling drugs,” Illings said. “I really don’t know where I would have been.”