A team of Saskatoon teens is the driving force behind a new housing program for kids without a safe place to stay.
EGADZ, a non-profit serving disadvantaged youth in the city, is preparing to open Ground Zero — a 10-bed home that aims to help youth aged 15 to 19 get back on their feet while they plan their next steps.
Its architects know why that matters.
They are youth for whom living in a tent or living in a youth shelter is not a hypothetical, but an experience they have lived through.
The Ground Zero youth committee sculpted every step of the project, from its conception to the interview questions that prospective staff will be asked. The ensuing proposal won roughly $1.1 million in annualized funding from the Ministry of Social Services and $250,000 from the Ministry of Health to run the new space, which may open as soon as March.
“It has been incredibly beneficial in giving me a different perspective on how the services for youth work, what their strengths are and what they’re lacking. And it’s given me a whole new perspective on myself as well,” said Chris, one of the committee members.
The Saskatoon StarPhoenix has agreed to refer to members of the committee by their first names or pseudonyms out of consideration for their age and their personal safety.
EGADZ executive director Don Meikle said the project is intended for youth who need to figure out their next steps. That could include youth who are temporarily homeless or who have just been discharged from a substance use treatment program, for example. Health services are embedded in the program.
“You go to some of them (other programs), and they have locks where the food is. And that’s not something you do — you don’t limit the youth if you want them to grow,” said Em, another committee member.
“Having been there, it makes it a lot easier to look at that particular situation and say, ‘That’s not right. That needs to change.’ ”
Sam, another committee member, said her experiences and work on the committee have given her insight into the trauma, physical and mental, vulnerable youth endure. Finding staff who can relate to that and build trust with the youth has been a focus of the project.
“I really feel like this is going to be a big thing and it’s going to benefit a lot of youth,” Sam said.
The project began in the summer of 2019, when youth requested a meeting with then-Social Services Minister Paul Merriman.
Merriman, who is now Minister of Health, said they told him very candidly what wasn’t working.
“I led a privileged life, so I didn’t have those experiences,” Merriman said. “I don’t know. I can’t go and try to fix or help with a situation if I don’t know what’s happened from their perspective … and they challenged me. They said ‘How are you going to help us?’ ”
His response was: “What do you need?” he recalled.
“We let the reins go with them to see what they would come up with,” he said. “And they came up with a great idea.”
Merriman’s successor, Social Services Minister Lori Carr, said the youth have taken ownership of their work.
“One of the things I’ve heard in the past is ‘If you’re going to talk about us, please include us,’ and that’s exactly what’s happening here,” Carr said.
Meikle said the project is helping change what he sees as outdated programming.
“The youth can tell me what their life is like in 2021. But if they look at social services policy, they can tell me what life is like in 1956,” he said.
He was impressed by the committee’s commitment to the project and the ministry’s flexibility in collaborating on it, he added.
“(The youth) picked the name,” he noted. “They picked that this is going to be by the youth, for the youth.”
Published on: February 2, 2021