Introductory Note: The intent of this focus group was to hear the reflections of migrants who were relatively homeless on the process of leaving their rural homes: whether and how it was experienced as a choice, what might have kept them in their rural homes or motivated them to return, and what interventions might have reduced the long-term harm of high-risk behaviours. Staff in Toronto agencies serving this population had difficulty identifying youth as being from the catchment area, so we expanded and simplified the criteria to include any youth ‘raised south of Sudbury in a centre too small to have a Staples store’.
The focus group took place at an Out of the Cold program (hot meal and mat on a gymnasium floor as sleeping accommodations) in a neighbourhood centre in downtown Toronto. Four youth had confirmed attendance, but two appeared; we chatted informally while awaiting them. The staff person did not participate with the group. It was direct scribed by a recorder as much as was possible with spirited, rapid-fire discussion. The two participants, Roger, age 29, and Jerry, age 26, each of whom gave their address as NFA (no fixed address) did not know each other previously. Roger said he’d rented an apartment that month with a girlfriend, but it hadn’t worked out and he’d moved out. (The focus group took place on the 5th of the month, so it was a short experiment.)**
Both participants are ‘systems youth’, utilizing a variety of systems to little evident positive effect. They are eloquent in a disjointed way about the process of spiralling toward homelessness, clearly identifying social exclusion as the operant mechanism, a consequence initially of poverty, exacerbated by not fitting in to the systems provided to help, and being rejected by / ejected from those systems as a consequence. Jerry worries that the time for fitting in may have run out, although he has dreams; Roger contends that he can and will fit in if/when he chooses to do so, but so far sees no alternative that motivates him. Each identifies moments of possible connection that came to naught because of systemic rigidity; Roger tells an interesting story of making the system admit it had failed him, but being bested by it, even then.
FM: Can we start with you each telling a bit about who you are, where you were raised.
Roger: I’m 29
Roger: Raised in Farm County, lived mostly in Middletown.
Jerry: I was raised outside [a town south of Farm County].
Both: Raised in group homes and foster homes.
Roger: I’ve been in child welfare since I was three. At 14 they visited me in [a juvenile justice facility] and they told me they didn't have any placements for me. I got arrested for the first time when I was 12; they investigated me for month and a half until I turned 12 and was old enough to be charged. I’ve been involved in the justice system since then, in and out.
Jerry: I was arrested at 12, too. I came into care when I was 12; that's when they brang me up to [the town where I was raised]. I actually liked it for a bit, till I was about 16. Then they did the same thing as with [Roger], they dumped me when I went AWOL from my [group] home. I was in semi-independent by 16.
FM: What was your child welfare status?
Both: Crown wards.
FM: The primary question we wanted to explore with you was whether leaving where you were raised was a choice, whether there was anything that, had it been there, would have made it possible for you to have stayed or returned home. Does anyone talk to you about that as an option? We’re also interested in how to keep people safer, reduce the harm, while they bounce around between agencies, various systems, all that sort of stuff. From you guys I'm hearing –
Jerry: I actually did return home for a little bit. They (child welfare) kicked me out officially at 18 but I was out of group homes from 16. I went back home at 19, on and off. I've been to [lots of towns in the Greater Toronto Area]; I always end up coming to Toronto and staying.
FM: Was home life pretty rugged?
Jerry: It wasn't rugged. It was just no food. Not at my mom's house - there was always food there, but at my dad's. He lives in Toronto; he would rather buy scratch tickets and beer and stuff than food.
FM: Where does your mom live?
Jerry: In [a large town along a large lake]. It was home for a little bit. But until I was 12 I lived in Toronto.
FM: Then to [the youth facility], and then to your dad’s or your mom’s after you left child welfare, or both?
Roger: My mother lived on the street when I hit the streets. So there wasn't a home to go to. And my dad is dead.
FM: You identified yourself as First Nations. Where does that fit in? Does it?
Roger: I’m eligible for status but I just can't be bothered. There’s no benefit: I don't attend school, there is that benefit gone. They’ve changed tax from GST/PST to HST so there goes our tax exemption. School and tax exemption is basically the only benefit and I don't have any use for it.
FM: What about school? Where are you there?
Roger: I did my GED (high school equivalency). I dropped out in grade 9 and did my GED three months later. I did do a bunch of credits in jail just to kill time.
Jerry: When I was in [the juvenile facility] we did homeschool. I don't know what grade I was in because it was just a bunch of different ages in that classroom in the house. So I don't really know what grade I am at.
FM: So you don’t see any value to school, really?
Roger: I dropped out in grade 9 because I was bored. By the time I was in grade 9 there had been three or four years in school where I wasn't really learning anything new.
Jerry: Yeah, same here. I'd skip school to go see my friends. Living on the run and stuff like that too.
FM: Did you ever think about what you wanted to do or be ‘when you grew up’?
Roger: I never put a moment’s thought into it, really.
Jerry: I did, and I still do. I just feel like, Oh I'm 26 now; it's never too late. I want to be a barber and open up my own shop and stuff like that.
FM: So I’m hearing that for both of you, leaving home wasn't a choice, you were just picked up and taken away. But when you were on your own and kinda going hither and thither - talk to me about the advantages of living rurally vs in town then.
Roger: When you’ve got a place and everything, it’s okay living in a rural setting. In the city, when you don't have a place, it is just easier to be, lot more resources, transportation is a lot easier.
FM: So if those things were available at home, more rurally, would you choose to live rurally?
Roger: I might have stayed because I knew more people and that. In Middletown, aside from a few food banks and stuff, [there are no resources to support living on the street]. But in Toronto - you would have to be retarded to starve here. If you are willing to travel around to all the different places there is not one single night where you have to be outside.
FM: But that's not true, even in a city the size of Middletown?
Roger: I wouldn't call Middletown a city, either.
Jerry: I actually have a cottage in [a town north of Middletown]. My mom’s.
FM: How does she manage a cottage?
Jerry: My mom works in environmental sciences at the hospital in [the GTA]. My mom says it wasn't her that put me in Children's Aid. She didn't have a choice because she didn't have control of me.
FM: Where is your dad in this picture?
Jerry: My dad’s a pot head. He's been working his whole life too and all that. He's got his head on his shoulders and everything. He's never been a bum. It's just - I can't really say anything bad about him – just his priorities weren't straight. I have three brothers and a sister. I'm in the middle. They didn't go into care.
Roger: You kinda fell through the cracks?
FM: The other four siblings; are they are kinda getting it together?
Jerry: My sister is an at-home mom. [Her partner?] has a good job making $40 an hour. My older brother is a... travels around the world, an agent, I guess, he's in this program thing. He's been to like Japan, India, Taiwan, a bunch of places. My two younger brothers, I don't really know what they do. I don't think they are doing anything yet. They are only 19 and 16.
FM: That feels kinda tough to me [to be the kid who didn’t get it together].
Jerry: The black sheep.
Roger: My family is all black sheep. My sister is the white sheep. She is the only one who works. She was on the street long before me. She was on the street at the time I...I got two sisters. One I don't know; she was adopted from birth. My older sister works down at the Hilton as a hostess.
FM: What does she think is the reason she was ‘resilient’, as they say?
Roger: I guess she didn't lose faith in people. I just decided not to care for some reason.
From 14 to 17-18, I was steadily outside. When I first got an apartment I couldn't sleep without the noise of the traffic and the streetcars.
FM: You were socialized to the street?
Roger: Uh huh. Fourteen years old, I was out there by myself.
FM: Was that really scary? To come from Middletown to here? Being on the street?
Roger: Maybe a little bit at first, but I got over it. I make the distinction all the time: I've never lived my life, I've survived it.
Jerry: Same here. When it comes to like going to stores and stuff, I'm like a klepto. You know, to survive.
FM: [Roger], you said you’ve been in and out of jail your whole life; what do you go to jail for?
Roger: I get in a lot of fights.
FM: Being First Nations, is racism a factor? Do they call you –
Roger: Not to my face.
FM: Do you think it’s a factor?
Roger: I think it's a factor if you take it in. If you take society’s view of what it means to be a native man or a native woman. I consider myself a First Nations man. I just don't consider myself falling into all the stereotypes that you generally hear about.
FM: What about the Idle No More movement? Is that something that helps young First Nations people see themselves differently than all those stereotypes?
Roger: It kinda bothers me, Idle No More. I don't see a time when we have actually been idle. It makes it sound like we are just starting now to do something about it. I have nothing against the movement, just the name of it.
FM: Some young people talked about it being a healing process for them – a group that walked from way up north into Ottawa. Do you think there might be something in that for you? Here's what I'm chewing at: [you say] life gave up on us and we are just doing one day at a time, no sort of great goals, no plans to change things significantly, just to carry on basically. What might turn that around?
Roger: Basically, well, I have nothing against the movement. I see it as a futile fight. It's not different than any other issue we have had over the years. People tend to not recognize the actual facts. Take the whole residential school thing, the apology -- which was bullshit, by the way. The last school closed in 1993. There are known mass grave sites all over the country. This is not ancient history.
FM: And it hasn't changed a whit, really. What about you, Jerry, on this idea of making a turn-around from living day to day to having some personal goal in life?
Jerry: I hope it's not too late.
FM: How would you know if it were?
Jerry: This world’s coming to -- you have to have a grade 12 education just to work at McDonalds soon. You have to be like 16 to work at McDonalds. Where I grew up, I've worked at [a restaurant], a place that’s a bar/ restaurant/pool hall. I've worked at like...I've had jobs, I've just never maintained them.
Roger: The only thing that is going to turn anything around for me, it's coming to the decision that i'm going to turn it around. It's not like i don't have the skills to do that.
FM: For some people, there comes a point where they bottom out; they say if I don't change, I'm going to be dead. Or for women, sometimes, they have babies and that’s a turn-around point. Some of the kids have said, basically, that they have been kind of fucked over enough that they gave up trying: everybody thought they were a fuck up, they just kind of majored in being a fuck up, whatever that meant. They played lots of cat and mouse, riding the edges, making a game of not getting caught for illegal stuff. And than at some point something happens to turn them around. For some it was an event. Some of the kids who were cutters, the turn-round was coming really close to doing themselves really bad harm. Having babies was a really big one for some of the girls, and for some of the guys (but not others). In order to get to that point, there needed to be somebody who believed in them, knew them, warts and all, saw them screw up time and time again, and accepted them and continued to be thre for them, in spite of the fact that they had screwed up.
Roger: I don't feel I need any of that. I'm on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) permanently. For whatever reason, the system has decided I'm ‘institutionalized’. If you have more than five years in the [penal] system you are automatically on ODSP. Five years total; not five years straight. Somehow that means you are institutionalized to the system. I'm not going to argue with it. It’s a free $1,000 a month for me. But it's also, at the same time, it gives you the option to not have to do anything else. You can't starve in this city. If and when I'm ever going to turn my life around and decide to go a more legitimate path, I don't feel I need anybody else. I can find myself employment, housing. Sure, I may take advantage of this system, at the same time I'll fully acknowledge that I don't need it.
FM: What about the people that say that if you cut off the money, that would make people work who could work?
Roger: It may work for some. For others, it'll make them turn to crime. Yet again, for others, what you see as the result is panhandling. How many panhandlers do you walk past any given block of Queen Street these days? Some of them make really good money panhandling. Some people do it just for the money, other people do it just to fill the day.
Jerry: I've never bummed for change. I'd rather go, you know, shoplifting. I enjoy doing it. I'll stay in the store for like an hour. I think I have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) sometimes, doing the same thing over and over again. I get a little rush from it.
FM: You called yourself a ‘klepto’ earlier. When did you start shoplifting?
FM: Did this start as a survival thing and then there was a secondary gain?
Jerry: (draws attention to a new Blue Jays sweat top he is wearing, and runners with an intact dye-pod still on the laces) This stuff I don't need, but I want it because it makes me feel good. Then I'll end up selling it for -- oh yeah, I sell a lot of stuff I get [through shoplifting]. Most of it.
FM: So that's your job?
Jerry: Yeah; I get money everyday.
Roger: Honest to God, I spend more money in a day than the average working person. I sell drugs. I've sold since I was 12 years old. I’ve never gone to jail for it; I like to consider myself skilled at what I do.
FM: You are not the only person who has said that. I've learned some interesting stuff in this research process. One thing being that there are some really middle-class looking and acting kids who take great pleasure in being very good drug salespersons. Who pride themselves in not getting caught. And see using as dangerous to their business. But you guys, do you use drugs?
Roger: I do.
Jerry: I steal stuff to get drugs. When I have drugs and they want drugs I'll sell them.
Roger: In your average day, I probably spend about $1,000, selling and buying.
FM: What I'm hearing you two guys saying is life ain't bad.
Roger: It's not. I truly believe life is exactly how you make it. The issue is whether or not you can look yourself in the mirror and like what you see.
FM: So what makes that hard [to do]?
Roger: Life is meant to be hard.
Jerry: Life is hard when I wake up in the morning with nothing.
Roger: You become accustomed to it, [living on the street]. I have no shame. I consider everything that I do, and if I feel shame I won't do it.
Jerry: With me, what you see is what you get.
Roger: I do my share of things that are not right, not proper. But my justification or my way of living with that is: any action that I take, I'm 100% willing to face any repercussion of that action.
FM: [What do you have to say to] the folks that say, these poor guys, how do we take these guys and get them off the street?
Roger: Absolutely nothing.
FM: Would it take something catastrophic?
Roger: There are certain scenarios that maybe make people think they are forced into changing something.
FM: Okay: talk to me about hopelessness. Is there a point at which a person is beyond reaching?
Roger: I think that varies with the person.
FM: Did you lose hope when you were 10, 11 , 12?
Roger: I stopped looking, hoping for things a long time ago.
Jerry: Fear looks back. [I] worry about what I'm going to be doing tomorrow.
Roger: I don't waste any time about thinking about the past because there is nothing you can change. If you don't expect anything you are never disappointed. I was 8 when I was put into group homes. I went through 156 placements. I never stayed anywhere longer than two or three months, tops, even when I was a [little] kid. It was my own fault. I didn't actually understand [until they told me when I was 10] that my mother had actually signed me over, [that it wasn’t the CAS took me from her]. In my logic, [I misbehaved because I thought] they are going to get tired [of putting up with that] and send me home.
Jerry: In my group home, kids had problems. They’d kick holes in the walls – that place spend so much money a week just fixing the holes in the walls.
FM: They were angry? You were angry?
Jerry: I was the only non-angry one there.
FM: When would you say that you kinda went from Maybe there’s a chance to Screw it?
Jerry: I think it actually made me worse, going to group homes. I lost all faith. My parents put me there. Having that rejection and thinking that your parents lost faith in you, there is no feeling like that, right?
FM: When did you go into care?
FM: Before that, were there interventions? Were you going to therapists/counsellors?
Jerry: I went to go see this psychologist at this doctor’s office. They said everything was all right with me at that age. But I was in special ed in school; I was always the class clown.
FM: Were you the bad kid from a good family?*
Jerry: I wasn't bad.
FM: But is that what the school felt?
Jerry: Yeah, I guess. I went to this special program school. A big house beside camp.
FM: Was school a pain in the butt for you right from the beginning?
Jerry: I did have friends, obviously, but the friends that I knew my whole life, they went to a school two km away, and I just lived on the wrong side of the street [to go to that school]. I just went [there] and chilled with my friends every day. After grade 8.
FM: The purpose of the research is to help us be smarter about rurally raised kids having a choice about whether they stay put or go away, and whatever that choice is, that they have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Half the kids that I interviewed felt they didn't have a choice. Many felt they were plucked out and sent away to where what they were seen to need was located. And that displacement, being separated from all things familiar, started them on a not-good path. So part of what I’m asking is how might we help those youth get on a better path?
Roger: The most effective way to approach the situation is to ask Are you ready for a change? Everybody just assumes that what you want is what they think you should want.
Probation officers, agencies around the city that you go to, they all assume that you must want to change this because they think you are supposed to want to change this. They just don't seem to grasp that some people just want to do their thing.
FM: Do they make you feel like they are kinda missionaryish? Saving your soul?
Roger: A lot of them. I don't go to all the other Out of the Colds in the city. The very few agencies that I go to on a regular basis, it's the ones that understand.
Jerry: This is my first time coming to Out of the Cold in a couple of months.
FM: What do you do?
Jerry: I couch surf. Internet cafes.
FM: When do you sleep?
Roger: You can sleep there, Internet cafes, for, like, $10.
Jerry: There is this one on Yonge. They have a few lounge chairs. I just pass out in one of those. Usually these places have like 40 hours for like $20.
FM: Do you ever sleep outside, sleep rough?
Roger: I do, all the time.
Jerry: In the summer I'll probably start doing that.
Roger: In the summer time it doesn't matter where I am.
FM: Do you ever feel vulnerable?
Roger: I really see myself as the type of person that most people are going to look at and say I'm not going to go fuck with that guy.
Jerry: I'll go somewhere where I know no one is going to be.
Roger: There are all kinds of ways to survive. I used to just carry a tarp and a sleeping bag. Otherwise I slept on top of tables. They used to have a lot more picnic tables and benches in parks back then. I don't care if I'm in the open. I don't care if people are around and can see me.
FM: You’re used to taking care of yourself?
Roger: I don't see adults as ever having been in charge of me. Children's Aid in the 80s had absolutely no filter system [about who they put in charge of children]. I saw myself as on my own when I was 5 years old. On your own is when you are responsible for providing for yourself. I never got a chance to be a kid, in the sense of someone else being responsible for you.
FM: Would you say the same, Jerry?
Jerry: Thirteen years old, when I was in the group home. Yeah, i had a chance to be a kid, smoking weed, doing stupid things.
FM: I mean being a kid like being carefree.
Jerry: Yeah, for a little bit.
FM: But you never did, Roger?
FM: Jerry, it seems from what you’ve said you had a fairly functional family, but you posed a problem they couldn't get around. Probably the school system is what did you in?
FM: What services, if they had been available to you in your community, might have made it possible for you to stay?
Roger: Not any different services, just more of them. I was a Crown Ward and I sued Children's Aid for the two years where they basically abandoned me. You know what I got for that? They gave me $3,200 for that. And I had to wait until I was 21 to get that.
FM: How did that happen?
Roger: It was my Children's Aid worker who did that on my behalf. At least they admitted they were wrong.
FM: Which CAS was it?
Roger: Metro Toronto. Children's Aid in the 80s, it was a mess. What kind of screening system did they have? [expands on the situation – CAS said they had no placement for him when he was released from a juvenile facility at 14 and gave him money to find a place to live and check in occasionally with his worker. He should not have been offered this ‘semi-independent living’ option until he was 16, and their failure to find him a suitable placement between age 14 and 16 was the basis of the suit.]
FM: Roger, I hope you go straight because you have a great package of skills.
Roger: I'll get there. I do say the same thing myself: when, not if. I know I can. It’s not a question of whether I can or cannot. It's a question of whether I decide.
FM: So you had one really good worker in 156 placements. Jerry, did you have any good workers? People that you look back on –
Jerry: Oh yeah, the owners of the first group home that I went to... I liked the people that were there. The workers were awesome.
Roger: For me, [group homes] were just the first step in the graduating scale of doing time.
Jerry: I didn't want to leave [that group home], but they said it's time for you to go to foster home now.
Roger: I only had one [placement] that I wanted to stay at, but they put me in there as a temporary placement.
FM: How old were you then?
Roger: I was 13.
Jerry: [In that group home I liked,] they put me in hockey, football, they put me in all the sports that I wanted to be in. Year and a half I was [there]. I even tried boxing for a while.
FM: Isn't that interesting, both of you. It's an unfortunately common story: the only thing I wanted they told me I couldn't have.
Roger: If you told me I couldn't do something, even if I didn't want to, just watch me.
FM: Got any other words of wisdom for me? I don't want to chew around the edges, I want to make some statements that are fairly close to the core. What I’ve heard so far makes me think that once a kid has lost their family, they are so far behind the eight ball it is hard for them to win. The other [piece of advice I’ve picked up] is listen to the kid: if they say this is good for me, leave them there, for god’s sake. Be much more consultative with the kid.
Roger: The whole group home system [sucks]. It gets you used to living an adult life with a structure set by someone else. It's just a graduation into the justice system. The first step [311 Jarvis, a juvenile detention centre] teaches you how to handle the confinement, than the second step teaches you how to handle all the violence. Then it's the adult [system]. It's what this whole system is, it's a game and if you figure out how to manipulate it, it's so easy.
Jerry: Just don't give the workers a hard time.
Roger: I used the group home basically as a drop in.
Jerry: In the summertime we went to sandbanks every day, at my group home.
Roger: I used to be afraid of jail until they put me in 311 Jarvis. Then I realized, this is how I'm living outside. The only difference is I can't just walk out the door here.
FM: Jerry, you were a good kid in the group home, it was homeschooling so it wasn't a hassle, you liked the people, you had a good life, recreation, the sandbanks, etc. If they’d just left you there after you were 12 or 13?
Jerry: I would have probably been a staff there by now.
FM: And they told you you had to go because you had done well?
Roger: My problem has never been intelligence. It has been the application of it.
* I misunderstood Jerry’s family situation for the duration of the discussion. It appears in retrospect that he was raised by his father in Toronto, who was a ‘pothead’ and poor provider, and entered the child welfare or juvenile justice system (because of truancy?) from his father’s home, being placed in a group home outside of Toronto. Likely his siblings were raised by his mother, who appears from his description to live in stable and positive circumstances, with whom he lived only briefly after leaving the care system.
** One of the frustrations of the format was giving each of these youth the opportunity to tell his story cogently, to correct my misperceptions and to articulate precisely his thoughts, which would have been much more possible in an individual direct-scribed interview situation. The rivalry for air time and perspective that is evident in this transcript, and the limited capacity to create space and silence for gathering and articulating thoughts and resonating with them (and the difficulty of capturing them verbatim), undermines the quality of the data and the therapeutic potential of the exchange.