TIM HUFF; Youth cry out for home

Jim Coyle

Youth cry out for home

The idea of home is a profound one, for most of us a physical place, a sense of rootedness, a sanctuary, a yearning. It speaks so much to the heart of things, touches people so deeply, that the notion of homelessness should be among the most awful there is.

For more than 10 years now, Tim Huff has seen homelessness in this city up close and in its worst manifestation: the mounting numbers of homeless youth. On Monday, he’ll help formally launch a project to do something about it. Huff is director of Youth Unlimited’s Light Patrol program, which has assembled and trained staff to help reach street kids, to gain a little trust, foster a little hope and link them up with the best available services. He’s been with Youth Unlimited for 15 years, helped develop a drop-in centre in Weston, then followed some of the most troubled of the clients downtown when they migrated there.

Since then, the 38-year-old father of two has been working on the front lines of pain and poverty — under the Gardiner, in the most remote alleyways — dealing with society’s highest-risk kids: the abused, the addicted, the violated, mistrustful and frightened. He’s sat with them as they put needles in their arms. He’s helped dig the unlucky out of snowbanks.

“The kids I focus on are kids who are so completely broken that they will not get help from adults,” he was saying yesterday. “They just are so afraid that someone else is going to hurt them. They’d never go into a shelter or drop-in centre because they couldn’t trust mom and dad, so why on Earth would they trust another stranger? How could they close their eyes in a shelter? What we are is brokers of trust, I guess is one way to put it. … They need to learn how to retrust an adult.”

One of the project’s benefactors has been former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston, who is to attend the launch Monday. Over the past year, her fundraising has helped acquire and outfit a 9-metre mobile home — containing a laptop with a database of every street-relevant agency in the city — that will be used as a base from which teams and supplies can reach those in need.

“We feed and we clothe and we take care of the immediate needs,” Huff says. “But the goal is to build enough trust over the longer term that we can move these kids to a better place. What I’ve discovered in 11 years on the streets is that we do not have enough people working physically on the street. So we decided, let’s create something where we can train staff and volunteers to be street workers.”

When Huff began this sort of work, the belief was that the people who did it best had come from the streets themselves, that they’d relate better, speak the language. He didn’t. Though he looks fairly young, has longish hair and dresses in a “street look.”

“But, you know, that lasts only so long. The best people I’ve seen on the street are people who just had the right heart for it. Understanding street culture, we can teach people that. You can learn what the name of the street drugs are, where the transient movement happens across the city. We need them to come with the right heart. I always tell people the biggest three issues on the street are trust, hope and dignity.”

Of course, Huff has run into his share of spoiled brats, kids who don’t want to obey the rules at home and — especially during summer — have decided to hit the streets. “But the point is even if they’re out there for the wrong reasons, the street will eat them up if they stay.”

Youth Unlimited is a Christian group, the Toronto chapter of an organization called Youth for Christ. But religion isn’t peddled, conversion isn’t a goal and “on the streets, it’s never a barrier,” Huff says. “We don’t go out and say, `Let’s convert people to what we think.’ But we do care for their spiritual welfare, just as we care for their mental and emotional and physical.”

To Huff, the rise in youth homelessness over the last decade “correlates with the decline of the family. The more neglect and abuse, the more we see it on the street level. I always tell people the next wave of homeless youth are in your kindergartens, your nursery schools. I’m at the tail end of homelessness. The prevention actually happens with the people who are working with young kids right now.”

And with a belief, he says, that homelessness is unacceptable. “The great and tragic irony is that every day the richest people in the country drive 6 feet over the poorest people in the country. Kids sleep in the I-beams of the off-ramps to Bay St. Driving by, you’d never even know they existed.”

Report by Jim Coyle