On Thursday, key players from several local agencies assisting residents living in poverty met to discuss a singular problem – how best to help two homeless teenagers who a mere week ago were living on the street.
In many ways, the meeting at Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold was a rarity. These agencies do often compare notes, but to have that many of them sitting around the same table to solve a complicated problem, doesn’t happen often.
But it needs to.
This particular case is as difficult as cases of homeless teenagers can be. One of them is pregnant. They have difficult family histories, have lived hard most of their young lives, and have cognitive disabilities that makes issues of “choice” a grey area at best, and often results in them acting in ways that frustrated even the most patient of agency workers.
(Local Samaritans, who the entire city should be proud of, managed to get the kids off the street and into a motel as a temporary housing solution, giving the agencies time to find a better solution.)
But they are still just kids, human beings deserving of a little dignity and a life that doesn’t involve sleeping under an overpass. No matter how difficult their cases are, no matter if each worker from each agency did everything they could, that those teens ended up on the street is still a failure. It’s failure of the system. It’s our failure as a community.
Finding a better way isn’t going to be easy and it is encouraging that the respective agencies that have been helping, or could help, met to figure out a plan.
With luck, a new path forward will be found for these teens, even if the odds are still stacked against their future.
Still, the entire incident has exposed a key weakness in our social services network in Niagara.
We have agencies that attempt to cope with the multitude of issues that arise from poverty from hunger and income supports to mental health issues and abject homelessness.
We have Family and Children’s Services, Community Care, the RAFT, Community Living, Gillian’s Place and many others. Each arose and evolved as an effort to meet a specific need that no one else was.
This kaleidoscope of agencies can be effective in their singular mandates, but when faced when complex problems – the kind of problems that do not lend themselves to easy solutions, or that require multi-agency responses or that need outside of the box, creative thinking – things can be somewhat chaotic.
In many cases, including the case of these two teens, multiple agencies will be in contact with and will attempt to serve people. Each agency has a puzzle piece but no one is able to put the entire picture together.
And that is what Niagara needs. Pilots to navigate people out of that “grey circle” they fell into, where life are as hard as a homeless teenager’s weathered face.
Niagara needs navigators who, in complex cases, can pull all the pieces together, help people find their way through the various services they need and coordinate the entire kit and kaboodle. Call it intensive case management, if you will.
To be fair, local agencies sometimes do this on an ad hoc basis, as they have in this case, but there is no formal structure that requires this kind of focus and direction to better manage complex cases.
There are undoubtedly some, for there always are, who reject this sort of approach. They believe it to be unnecessary, or because they put their organization before the needs of people, or simply dismiss it because they are so hidebound to stale institutional thinking that new approaches are rejected as a matter of course.
And yet, there is something missing our system because, despite the efforts of hard working and well meaning people, two teenagers with serious health issues, one of them pregnant, ended up on the street.
If that doesn’t give this region pause to consider how and why we do things, then we can expect more young people to fall through the cracks.
Can you look in the mirror and say that is acceptable?