Given the intractable frustration of the situation and the likelihood of its grim outcome, I asked the police officer a simple question.
“How do you not scream at situations like this?”
Without missing a beat he said, “Because you’d run out of air.”
The three teenagers – two boys and one girl, all 17-years-old – were huddled on a downtown St. Catharines sidewalk under blankets that long ago had the warmth beaten out of them. They were wrapped in clothes that are equal parts grime and fabric.
That they were using illicit drugs was as plain a fact as their obvious unfamiliarity with a shower.
She says she is pregnant.
They had exhausted whatever family bonds they had left. They burned bridges with a youth shelter that had tried to help them. They refused help from other agencies that offered it because the girl and one boy are a couple. Niagara doesn’t have have shelters for expecting teenaged couples with behavioral and addiction issues. And they refuse to be separated.
No one working downtown Thursday could fail to miss the trio of children on St. Paul Street, bundled up on the sidewalk beside the Pizza Pizza or occasionally under the Rankin Gateway overpass.
Most people walked by with nary a word or a glance. Many people have learned not to see the worst byproducts of poverty when confronted by them. A few, recognizing the obvious dire straits at play, stopped to offer food.
Over the course of the day, staff from several local agencies arrived to see what could be done to help. First the YWCA of Niagara, then Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold, Family and Children Services and the Niagara Regional Police. To a man and woman, they all recognized these teenagers should not be left to the bitter fate circumstances and poor choices have created.
And there was nothing any of them could do.
The YWCA might have an appropriate shelter for the couple, but if that is a viable option it can’t be put into action until next week at the earliest. There are no guarantees.
Although the teenagers are minors, the mandate of Family and Children Services ends when a person turns 16, so the agency has no jurisdiction.
Community Care can connect people, including teenagers, to local services but the teens have to want to accept that help and abide by the conditions those services insist upon.
The Niagara Regional Police have repeatedly offered the teens assistance in finding appropriate help, but those offers have been turned down. Officers cannot forcibly remove them from the street unless they break the law, which the teenagers haven’t.
For all intents and purposes, these three teens live in what a homeless outreach worker called “the grey circle” of services in Niagara. No one can force them off the streets, and no one can make them accept the aid of the community resources designed to help them.
So there they sit in their own limbo. Three teenagers – one pregnant – on the street, subsisting on the kindness of strangers and choosing, for reasons that may only make sense to them, to say no to institutional help when it’s offered.
The grey circle is a place few people want to think about. It’s messy. It’s complicated. And there may be no real solution at hand.
It is an easy task, as some have done in St. Catharines lately, to celebrate one’s “compassion” by taking selfies of themselves opening a door for someone and posting the photo on social media. It is a much more difficult challenge to reach out to someone living in the grey circle, knowing there may be no effective way to help.
There is nothing inspirational to be found in the grey circle. It cannot be summed up in 140 characters. There is very little hope.
Statistically speaking, the outcome for these teens is not promising. With few supports their already bad situation will likely deteriorate. Their health will continue to decline. On the street they are exposed to predatory criminals. Their use of illicit drugs, particularly in the era of fentanyl, puts them at risk of suffering an overdose. This is to say nothing about the health of a pregnant girl living on the street and that of her unborn child.
The circumstances that put that trio on the street are, in part, of their own making. At some level, they made bad choices and continue to make them.
And yet they are only teenagers. They have barely emerged from childhood. They are not adults with years of education and life experience. In the grips of drug addiction, and potentially of mental health issues, what does “making the right choice” mean exactly?
We do not trust those under 18 to cast a ballot or buy a case of beer. Yet our social services mechanisms says at 17 they are old enough to navigate, without help, the lousy roads of hard circumstances and bad decisions that put them on a grimy street corner begging for food.
I will not pretend to know the way out of this labyrinth. Wiser people than I have tried to resolve such issues. Yet we, as a community, need to try. We may fail, but we need to make the attempt for the alternative is to admit the loss of three young lives – possibly four – in our city is an acceptable, if tragic, outcome.
The NPR officer is right. Screaming will only leave our lungs empty. We, and they, are better served by trying to find a way to help these teenagers help themselves.