Dawn, age 17, is an attractive, brash, out-going young woman, cooperative but guarded in the interview. She is the middle of three siblings raised by a single mother in poverty. She fought with her mother and was ‘a little drug addict kid’ from quite a young age. She was sent to live with her father at 12, but came into child welfare care at 13 and became a Crown Ward. She didn’t settle into placement – she claims 42 placements, including in the juvenile justice system – and ‘became her own guardian’ at age 16. When she became independent, she modified her drug use and is settling into school and trying to live safely in the community. She describes how difficult it is to find safe housing and manage financially on student welfare, is appreciative of the support the alternative classroom teacher offers, is realistic about the limitations of help from her peers, and struggles to articulate what is helpful to youth like herself.
David is 17 and has been in Toronto for five months, during which time he has gotten transitional housing, a job at Shopper’s Drugs Mart, and enrolled at an Independent Learning Centre. He looks his age and dresses ‘preppy’; there is a faux sophistication in how he interacts, and he describes a history of social exclusion for socially awkward behavior. He vehemently rejects a diagnosis of autism. He was desperate to leave his farm home, for reasons that he doesn’t articulate very clearly, and after a period of school and social difficulties, running, cutting and a hospital assessment, he ran away to Toronto. He is fairly focused on getting a university education and a good-paying career. He articulates an interesting perspective on the short-comings of the shelter system for youth like himself, and the ethical dilemmas of involving child welfare.
Angel, 18, volunteered to be interviewed at a Toronto street youth agency when the person I expected to interview didn’t show up. She is part of a large, complex family and was raised by paternal grandparents on a farm until adolescence, when they all went to live with her father in the GTA. She had difficulty with the transition and returned to her home town to live with her mother, came into child welfare care briefly and was released to her father’s care at 16. She quickly spiraled into a street life of drug dealing and prostitution. Her life style changed – although she still uses pot for medicinal purposes – when she learned she was pregnant. She also has cancer. She describes that she is not a planful person, and is worried about having a girl child, but is working with the agency and is optimistic. She has an interesting perspective on the lack of resources for youth in rural communities and the connection with negative behaviour.
Anna Belle is an 18-year-old girl who lives with her parents; they continue to have a difficult and fairly transient life, mostly within Cottage County. She describes in some detail a failed attempt to improve their lot by relocating, and her perspective on differences in school and social life in rural and urban environments. She describes a congenital condition that required a childhood of medical intervention and left her looking physically odd. She struggles with hypoglycemia and depression, exacerbated by poverty and social exclusion. Her physical appearance becomes significantly less distracting when she becomes animated, as she did in describing her career aspirations. She is finishing high school in a combination of adult ed and regular high school classes.
May, aged 19, is an attractive, slender blonde who came to the interview from work wearing scrubs. She is a West Coast First Nations and bounced between BC and Ontario several times as part of a complex story of family chaos. She most recently left her mother’s home to live with a boyfriend in Westville while completing high school through a work preparation course and independent study. She describes suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse and misbehaviour, some the sequelae of incest with a grandfather, but also a healing stay with a relative and supportive counselling. Post interview, she indicated that her grandfather is in custody on several charges of sexual assault and is likely to be deemed a chronic offender and remain in jail indefinitely.
Mizzfit chose her name after she’d shared her story, which was rushed because she arrived a bit late, paced around the building having a smoke before she came in, and then had to leave to meet her commitment at the police station. She is 19, looks sad, speaks in a tiny voice, was sparing in her responses and emphatically did not want a copy of her story. She learned of the opportunity to participate from Hummus: they are both staying in the shelter. The agency where I met her reported that she had called several times to confirm the appointment. She did not appear to enjoy the interview – the only participant of whom I would say that. She comes from a difficult, transient family background and has been system-involved since an early age. She attributes moving to an urban environment as the factor that tipped her into serious difficulty.
Kent is 19, self-describes as a visible minority and says he has a diagnosis of bi-polar. He talked quickly and often when I got behind couldn’t help me pull together what he had said but rather rephrased himself or told another story. His tale is dramatic, full of violence in which he is both victim and perpetrator. His behaviour led to many school changes and moves, and eventual involvement in the juvenile justice system. He sees himself as making a turn-around: he has resolved an addiction to drugs, has made progress at completing high school, and is trying to make good choices while living in a youth shelter.
Andrew, 20, looks Hispanic: olive skin, aquiline nose, straight dark hair. He aspires to making a living with his music, but has acquiesced to the need to get accreditation for a more practical job and has registered at a private college to study accounting. He mentions only when asked that he was recently hospitalized for a psychotic break, and intends to avoid a recurrence by refocusing his life. He is eloquent about the stresses of high school, the surprise of post-school reality, and the absence of resources for youth in small towns once they leave school. The church community is important to his family, and perhaps to Andrew, although he identifies some stressors in the relationship.