It’s about survival. Homeless youth are rarely on the streets by choice. They are typically there because of circumstances. Peter Lewis, 26, discovered that sleeping on the streets, in tents, emergency shelters or on friends’ couches was a solution to an unstable family situation. For four years he had no permanent address. When Peter had exhausted all his resources he was numb. “I had no place to go,” he says.
As a child, Peter had no family structure—no role model. His parents divorced before he was born and his mother, a truck driver, was never home. “It was always just me and my older brother,” says Peter. “We were lonely, overwhelmed and overburdened, kids who made bad choices.”
When Peter moved in with his father at age 14, he was abusing drugs and alcohol. He beat up kids, was put in jail for stealing cars, and burglarized homes. Peter quit school and, unable to handle him any longer, his father sent him back to his mom’s.
“Mom was still spending days and nights driving the highways so I started couch surfing between friends. Living by the seat of my pants everyday was not fun,” says Peter.
As Peter tried to cope with life’s stresses his excessive use of alcohol resulted in his being tossed from a compassionate friend’s apartment. “I blacked out one night after a drinking binge and when I awoke my bags were packed. I was devastated.”
With his possessions stuffed in a backpack, Peter started to walk. And walk. Too young for the local adult emergency shelter, the 25-year-old was referred to The Salvation Army’s Sutton Youth Shelter. The shelter, a renovated elementary school, provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless youth ages 16 to 26. Since its doors opened in March 2006 the centre has served more than 800 people.
“The shelter services turned my life around. I was desperate and in need,” says Peter. “At the shelter I was safe and cared for. Trained staff helped me tackle major life issues. I completed my general education diploma and learned essential life skills so I could be a successful contributor to society. If I didn’t go to the shelter I believe I would be in jail today.
“Now I work full-time building custom shutters. I don’t abuse drugs and my backpack carries books and papers. I rent my own room. I finally have a place to call home.”