Friday, March 23, 2018
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A Walk in their Shoes

A WALK IN THEIR SHOES: Advocate goes inside Sutton homeless youth shelter

Part I of III introduces readers to the organization's supervisor

Many people frown or sneer at the mention of the Sutton Youth Shelter.

It could be fear of the unknown because most of us likely have no idea what goes on behind the facility's brown walls and dark windows.

Through this in-depth investigation, we hope to bring insight into this operation and an understanding of what is really going on behind closed doors.

To start, we spent a day with shelter supervisor Grant Verdoold and a group of residents who talked frankly about the shelter and their lives.

The shelter operates inside an aging Dalton Road building; formerly St. Bernadette's Catholic School.

It was, for a while, a shared unit with Jericho Youth Services, which ran Sutton's youth centre at one end but Jericho moved across the street to Sutton Public School so the shelter is on its own.

Opened in January 2006 and funded jointly by York Region and the Salvation Army, the shelter offers 16 beds and 10 emergency cots to male and female young people from 16 to 26-years-old, the only co-ed facility in the region offering a 10-year age range.

Additionally, the Sutton shelter is the only one in York, according to residents, which allows shelter youth to remain inside all day if they choose and provides them three square meals a day.

Residents are required to leave their rooms in the morning but have the option of watching the TVs or pool table in the lounge, reading books in the shelter's library or taking advantage of the six computers donated by Patrick Chezzie of Computer Rescue.

Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous programs are also available and Mr. Verdoold hopes to expand those services in the future to include weekly visits from a nurse and/or psychiatrist.

It doesn't stop there, though.

Going well above and beyond the basic requirements of a shelter supervisory role, Mr. Verdoold provides friendship, guidance, day programs and anything he can to residents. He calls this service a ministry of presence.

"That's what I consider the real work; not the events, not the programs ... it's just being there for them," Mr. Verdoold said.

Many residents are initially opposed to living in a shelter and angry at being homeless, so they seclude themselves from other residents, he said, adding by being patient and offering these wayward youth the option to talk when they feel like it, Mr. Verdoold sees newcomers slowly become more comfortable with others.

"Now, sometimes you'll find it takes three or four weeks (for a person to open up), so it's a little inkling here, a little splatter there, a little joke here, a little joke there, or a little time with coffee. I choose Tim Hortons a lot because you can get them out. That's why I do the events, too."

Well-known in the community, Mr. Verdoold's "adventures" take residents to extraordinary places, such as the CN Tower and Niagara Falls whirlpool "to show them that possibilities are possible".

Funded through the sale of donated items, these adventures also give residents a chance to participate in the fundraising process by working large outdoor garage sales held on the front lawn of Sutton Sobeys during the summer.

"This is where I've learned from Walt Disney. It sounds bizarre I know, but he creates this magical kingdom, where people are running to get to the gates, so I thought: What if I have an event? What if I have a program that can be the same thing," Mr. Verdoold said.

Experiencing something one thought was impossible can change one's perspective and restore a little hope, something that is in greater demand than many might think.

"I'm seeing so many youth who are coming through here with a shroud, a negative curtain over their eyes. They can't see the possibilities for anything.

"I don't know how we're doing this in our society, but what I'm seeing as the end result is a young person sitting in front of me who wants to kill himself because he doesn't see anything left to live for," Mr. Verdoold said.

He receives calls at all hours from at least one youth a mnth who has lost the will to live; the number of which has tripled in 2009 over 2008, he said.

"When you get a young person who doesn't fit in anywhere, who can't go on with their education for whatever reason, maybe in trouble with the law, just can't connect and is struggling to do their soul searching to find out what their purpose is, that's a huge problem. They get to the end and they say, 'It's all finished.' Purpose and boredom are rampant; pandemic actually," he said.

Just the night before the interview, Mr. Verdoold was called by a 20-year-old Keswick man.

"For whatever reason, he saw nothing ahead. Nothing. Zero.

"So I talked to him about his music, because he was writing poems and music, at one point. I try to work with their interests and connect with their past and try to see if we can move forward.

"But he's still here, and I don't think I did anything spectacular. It's just that ministry of presence we talked about," Mr. Verdoold said.

A ministry that is all the more available to the few residents living at the shelter today.

Although residents can come and go on any given day, there were only seven while the Advocate was there, a relatively low number, especially during the winter months.

For an in-depth look at the lives and experience of some residents, look for part two of the feature next week.

 Part II in a three-part series talks frankly to homeless youth and how
they got here
By Michael Owen

Anthony Pulla is 23 years old and lives at the Sutton Youth Shelter.

When we talked to him several weeks ago, it told us it was his first day
at the shelter- the only place he had to turn to after his grandparents
died in December and his father kicked him out of the house.

Walking on crutches into the gymnasium with one leg still in a cast after
breaking both his heels, Mr. Pulla managed to practise shooting a tennis
ball at a hockey net to pass away some of the morning, before speaking
about his recent experience in the system.

"The first one I hit was Brampton and that was drugs, drugs, drugs,
drugs, drugs," Mr. Pulla said.

It's a lifestyle he no longer wants any part of. The drug scene is one he
has been all too familiar with since the age of 13.

"I've been down every scene almost. They're not happy scenes and they're
not good scenes, but I know what is right and what is wrong now," Mr.

He attributes the amount of drugs at the Brampton shelter to the age
group and number of residents there.

With 30 to 40 residents close to middle age hooked on hard-core
substances such as cocaine and heroin, Anthony knew he wouldn't be able
to turn his
life around there and, after a conflict with staff, he took to the
streets again.

"On the street, the nearest bank I'd just crawl in. The door's open. If
there's a heater, you stay beside the heater. If not, there's still a
more warmth than out on the streets. It's kinda sad," Mr. Pulla said.

After being taken back to the shelter on one occasion by police, he again
left and made his way to the Newmarket shelter where he spent Christmas

He was grateful for the gift cards the shelter gave to residents, with
which he purchased a few $6 shirts and a tool kit. It's that tool kit he
hopes will come in handy for the computer technician course he's hoping
to take while he's here in Sutton.

"I pulled out of (the drug scene) myself, but you've gotta really hit
rock bottom to realize life is way better than living in a shelter or
out on the streets," he said.

Mr. Pulla said he hasn't touched cocaine in two years, but admits he
still goes to Toronto for other recreational drugs on occasion.

"There's no need to lie. The way I see it is we all have to learn from
our mistakes or we're never going to grow up," he said.

More residents began to filter into the gymnasium in search of Grant
Verdoold, shelter supervisor, for their group discussion, in which Mr.
helps them work through issues and plan for the future together.

Since residents must be out of their rooms after 9 a.m., the discussion
is a regular fixture.

The first resident to join the conversation is 16-year-old Keri-Anne
Hendry, who had only been at the shelter for a week and planned on
leaving, but
after weighing her options, decided to stay where she felt safe and

"The difference betwen here and other shelters, is they actually help you
out here," Ms Hendry said.

After being arrested, Ms Hendry was kicked out of her home and, with
nowhere to go, stayed with different friends for three months, before
to seek out the shelter, a decision that can be hard to make.

"I decided to come to shelters, because I know they'll help me find a job
and get back into schooling and I want to find my own apartment, you
I'm only 16, so I'm still young, like really young," Ms Hendry said.

Even at 16, she's already seen more than most young women ever want to.

"I've seen some crazy stuff and I've been through some crazy stuff. I've
seen people in stairwells smoking crack and injecting and I've seen
overdose many times.

"I've injected oxy (oxycontin), but only oxy and I've only done it twice.
They tried to do it on my foot and they messed up so it was bleeding. It
was bad," Ms Hendry said.

She has never done heroin though, despite being around those who have in
several rehabilitation clinics.

After she listed the various clinics, she and fellow resident Greg Beard
realized they have both steered clear of heroin and have both been in the
same clinics, a fact that made their faces light up in smiles as they
celebrated with a high-five.

It may seem odd, but even small things are worth celebrating in a
shelter, where Mr. Beard, 18, had only been for a week and was already
planning to
leave in a couple days.

This time, he found himself at the shelter because his parents kicked him
out for a few days, but he had made previous stays of four to five months
and had visited other shelters in Kitchener, Oshawa and Orangeville.

"This one is so much better. In Kitchener, there were (people) shooting
up on the steps and needles in the bathroom. This one's just cleaner.
in Orangeville, you're kicked out from 8 (a.m.) to, like, 6 or 7 (p.m.).
This one you get lunch and you get to come in and have a place to stay,"
Mr. Beard said, adding how thankful he is for the help the Sutton shelter
provides in finding residents jobs.

As the conversation wound down, a staff member came into the gymnasium to
inform residents lunch would begin in 15 minutes, and everyone quickly
headed through the mag-lock doors and down the pale-coloured hallway
toward the kitchen.
For a further look at residents' interactions and daily life, look for
part three of the feature next week.

Part III of a 3-part series on the Sutton Youth Shelter

Lunch is served at the Sutton Youth Shelter.

Staff prepares grilled cheese sandwiches and carrys on friendly conversation with residents, much like you might expect from summer campers and counsellors.

A cheerful mood fills the room as everyone enjoys lunch with a newspaper or discussion.

The Advocate sits down with 17-year-old resident Erin McIntyre.

Ms McIntyre was recently evicted from her apartment after becoming too ill to attend school in Keswick and losing her Ontario Works eligibility.

She's been at the shelter for a month, trying to regain her health while looking for work and an apartment.

In the meantime, she's grateful for a place to stay and something to eat.

Although residents are able to go back for extra helpings, lunch ends quickly and since residents are only allowed access to their rooms for half an hour after lunch, some begin on their chores on time (which must be completed to receive an Ontario Works personal needs allowance of $4.10 a night.)

Some youth decided to head out for the afternoon.

Everyone makes sure their room is tidy first, though.

Transition rooms include a private bedroom with a bed, dresser and closet, connected to a central lounge area with a TV, while emergency rooms contain multiple beds in the same room.

Depending on the day, weather and resident, afternoon activities vary from job interviews to meeting friends to simply walking around town.

The residents requested the areas where they congregate outside the shelter not be mentioned, but a quick check revealed there were no shelter residents behind stores or plazas or loitering in front of stores or plazas on Dalton Road on this day.

It is interesting to note, however, there were other young people loitering in these places.

Most residents return to the shelter by 4:30 p.m. when rooms are again open until 5 p.m.

This time, conversation turns to how residents feel they're perceived by the rest of Georgina.

Residents have heard they are unwelcome in town and admit some people make them feel like scum, calling them shelter kid or shelter fish.

Although they've grown a thick skin to the verbal abuse, most agree the names are still hurtful coming from certain people.

"I always thought I was going to be a shelter kid because my older brother told me I was and now he laughs in my face all the time," Ms Hendry said.

It's not just family who provoke residents though.

"We can just walk out the door and people will be screaming shelter kid, shelter fish and all that," 16-year-old Keri-Anne Hendry said.

"Some guy tried to pick a fight with me because I'm living here," fellow resident Greg Beard added.

By the time the conversation ends, residents were getting ready for dinner, after which some make their way to the lounge, while others decide to take advantage of the privacy of their rooms, which are accessible after 7 p.m.

Curfew is at 10 p.m. and lights out is at 11 p.m.

Grant Verdoold, shelter supervisor, was surprised at the candidness of residents during the day, given some of the hardships they've faced, but staff cautioned they were most likely excluding the more graphic details.

"We typically deal with people who are chronically in and out of the (municipal housing) or have mental health issues. A lot of addictions.

"And there's some situations where you'll talk these guys and their circumstances don't sound bad because they're not telling you the full picture, but a lot of them have trauma backgrounds," one staff member said.

It's important for people to remember that not everyone has as many options in life, and some people make poor decisions, but they're still people, staff want to convey to the community.

Even if they live in a shelter, they shouldn't automatically be regarded as second-class citizens.

The Sutton Youth Shelter is the only one of its kind in York Region.