“Life Is What Happens To You When You’re Making Other Plans.” How a Youth Homeless Shelter Shaped a Young Woman’s Life

As a 15-year-old homeless teen “C.H.” found safety, guidance and hope at the YES Shelter for Youth and Families in Peterborough, Ontario. This is her story, in her own words, of gratitude for YES and its staff – her “angels of mercy” – and how she now looks back “feeling so much pride having overcome it all”.

By C.H.

The Youth Emergency Shelter (YES Shelter for Youth and Families), in Peterborough, Ontario has been a big part of my journey in life, and, since it’s opening it has been an important piece of our community. It isn’t a pretty place, but it’s a necessary one. I hope my story helps you feel even a grain of the way I feel entirely about the shelter and the work it does. I still don’t feel any words or quotes can fully show my gratefulness to the people who made it such a special place for me.homeless_teen

“Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” I have clutched to this John Lennon quote for many years. In 2006. as a 15-year-old girl, I dreamed and planned of my coming years — and life happened to me.  I planned for travel, school and concerts, but my reality was a tumultuous home, a workaholic father and a mentally unstable mother who was dependent on narcotics. (Sorry, Mom).

When I ran out of friends to stay with, my journey with the YES Shelter began. Just months before my 16th birthday, I became a ward of Children’s Aid Society (CAS). I was too old to be fostered or to go into a group home, so I was brought to YES and to my angels of mercy — Ruby, Karen and Simon. Ruby was my case manager, and Karen and Simon work in Carriage House, the shelter’s school. I was scared the first few days. It wasn’t what I was expecting, I guess. I slowly met the other teens. We talked and smoked cigarettes. I met kids there who had it better, and many who had it worse than me. One thing we all had in common was that we were troubled and fate hadn’t been kind to us.

“I saw fights, drugs, drinking and sex. I saw people who had nothing stealing from people who didn’t have much. I also saw community donations and volunteers who changed my perspective in life.”

A house full of young teens and young adults sounds crazy, right? Imagine a house full of teens and young adults who have been abused, forgotten or who just want to party. How does one put that together and maintain normality? Some how they do it, or they try. I saw fights, drugs, drinking and sex. I saw people who had nothing stealing from people who didn’t have much. I also saw community donations and volunteers who changed my perspective in life.

Over the years, I saw understanding, hope and love from people who just wanted to help. I saw workers turn cheek and I saw workers who listened and loved like their pay cheques depended on it. These angels of mercy have saved lives, mine included. Despite how crazy it was in that house, there was also a common feeling of relief to have a safe place from the streets and unstable couch-hopping. I went to school at the Carriage House. I met friends, some good, some bad. Unknowingly, I met a guy at school who would one day be my husband.

I aged out of CAS on my 16th birthday. I ate my breakfast at the shelter and was told to pack. Ruby said I had to be discharged. I could re-admit as an independent teen on Ontario Works. Being the person I am however, I moved in with a friend and a boyfriend, despite the advice and warnings from staff. I maintained that housing for a few months until our roommate was incarcerated. We had to give notice and find our own places. I came back to the shelter in the summer of 2007 with a heavy drug and alcohol dependency, and I was then discharged as a result of using in-house. It was summer and a great time to sleep under the stars in my books, so I did.

I soon found housing – a room – and I managed to stay out of the shelter for a few months. I was assaulted after a Halloween party that Fall. I’d never felt so alone. I was on probation and underage and, feared my own incarceration if I reported it. But I told Karen, the student support worker, and she helped me stop blaming myself and report it and see a doctor. I knew the assaulter knew where I lived, so I went to the shelter until I could find another place to live. With a school and a grocery store just steps from the building, I had all I needed. I felt safe.

Time and life continued to move on, as it does. I struggled with school, work and housing. When my boss found out I was pregnant in 2008, I lost my job and then couldn’t pay rent. I couldn’t stay with my mother. Watching her struggle with sobriety was something I could not live with every day. I knew at the shelter I was better off. It was another family tree to me.

In 2009, I moved to Lindsay to be with my child’s father and be close when our son arrived. As pressures of a baby, school, work and bills weighed on us as young parents, I felt increasingly isolated with no family. I moved back to Peterborough in 2010. Between leaving Lindsay and discovering that another baby was on the way, my children’s father became paranoid and violent. I was young and scared. I tried to hang in there, for the kids, right?

“I knew I didn’t want my son or daughter
to think that this was love and normal . . .”

I knew the shelter took families but I didn’t want my kids there, or have their father hurt someone trying to get us out. I knew I had to plan carefully. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. I didn’t know but stress can cause a baby to come early. In retrospect, I should have known. I was constantly stressed, no money, no food and not working. I was always walking to food banks and to appointments. She came and with her came beauty and hope. I knew I didn’t want my son or daughter to think that this was love and normal; or, God forbid, I didn’t want them acting that way.

I pushed on trying to focus on school. Simon, the teacher, once let me write a math exam while I nursed my daughter. He always spoke of how important education is, especially when you have kids. Knowledge is one of the few things that can’t be stolen from us. After an especially bad day with their father, I cried in the shower so the babies didn’t hear me. It was the first time I believed I was going to die. If he didn’t kill me, I was going to kill myself.

It broke me to think that my children would not know me, thinking they would not feel my love, or wonder for life. I did what I could. I prepared all their father needed. I packed my things and I left him, without my children. I knew I could come back for them and he wouldn’t hurt them. I also knew he would be so busy with them, I could get a job and an apartment.

My stay at the shelter in 2011 is the most important in my story. An old friend and Carriage House student was driving around, just as alone as I felt. He saw me at the shelter. He hit reverse and ran to me for a hug. The staff warned us about our past and concerns over me being increasingly late for curfew. I found a place and work through a temp agency. The shelter helped with a job cleaning the school weekly. I graduated that year as the oldest person in last graduating class at PCVS in 2012. Even after graduation, though my discharge and my cleaning position ended, I continued to volunteer with food bank runs with Ruby’s husband Don.

“Love is a friendship set on fire.”

In 2013, we became a new family when I was granted sole custody with a restraining order. In 2015, I married the mysterious guy I met at the Carriage House nearly 10 years ago. “Love is a friendship set on fire.” This Jeremy Taylor quote was read at our wedding and rings true to our love story and where we began. In 2016, we bought our first home and celebrated with donations to local poverty efforts. We look back often feeling so much pride having overcome it all.

 In the words of Tim McGraw, “Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you. When you get where you’re going, don’t forget to turn back around and help the next one in line. Always stay humble and kind.”

Please raise the roof for YES. Thank you.

Related: Finding ‘A Way Home’ for Homeless Youth

Photography Project Gives Homeless Youth A Voice

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