The recent case of a man who was unlawfully at large in the Truro, N.S., area and allegedly committed dozens of sex and drug trafficking crimes against children shows the need for a local youth shelter is dire, says a youth advocate.
Michelle Rafuse, a volunteer who supports First Nations youth in court, said a shelter for young people would help prevent at-risk youth from becoming victims of violence and sexual exploitation.
“There’s no place for kids to go in Truro if they need a place to stay,” said Rafuse, who often allows homeless kids to stay at her own home.
“If they have no place to go, they end up in circumstances where they could get led down a path they don’t want to be on.”
Truro and the surrounding Colchester County do not have a youth shelter. The counties of Digby, Yarmouth, Shelburne, Pictou and Halifax all have youth shelters serving their areas.
Youth shelters are usually run by not-for-profit groups and are aimed at ending homelessness for people aged 16 to 24. The youth stay for several months and receive connections and support to help them get their lives on track.
CBC News spoke to a 22-year-old Indigenous man who said he spent the last several years homeless in Truro. He said he used to walk around the town at night messaging friends and asking for a place to stay, often crashing at the homes of friends on their laundry room floors. If he couldn’t find a place to stay, he kept walking.
“It was weird sleeping outside, so I just stayed awake,” said the young man, who recently found housing because a member of the community offered up her home. “There’s a lot of people in the same boat. There’s a pretty big need for it.”
CBC News is not identifying the man because he has been a participant in the youth criminal justice system, involved in break and enters, which he said he did to get money to support himself. He said he wouldn’t have committed those crimes had he not been so desperate and had a safe home.
He said his troubles started in his teens when his relationship with his father turned volatile. Upset about the fighting, he failed to turn up at his job baking cookies and bread at a local bakery. After losing the job, he said he was kicked out of the house because he could no longer pay the rent.
Truro has emergency shelter, but it’s not just for youth
Truro has a youth centre, which has been closed due to COVID-19, but it’s only open during the day. There is also an overnight emergency shelter open to youth over the age of 16.
Truro, with its population of 12,500 is a hub town, a crossroads where the Trans-Canada Highway joins from three different directions. The town is next door to the Millbrook First Nation, a Mi’kmaw community with many members living off-reserve.
A 2018 Statistics Canada study found Nova Scotia had the highest rate of human trafficking in the country in 2016.
Joe Pinto, a local developer and businessman, said he’s noticed the growing issue of youth homelessness in Truro.
“There seems to be a lot of kids that the parents are not available to look after them or they’re just on the street, couch-surfing, going from place to place. I feel that there’s a need to house them and give them a bit of guidance,” he said.
Pinto said he has space available in downtown Truro for a youth shelter if a community group is interested.
Social services and housing are provincial responsibilities. In a joint statement, the Department of Community Services and the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing described having a place to live as an important piece of the complex problem of human trafficking.
To propose a youth shelter for the town, a community group would first have to submit a proposal, which could include a request for funding, to Nova Scotia’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing. So far, no such proposal has come forward.
What the province says it’s doing
The Nova Scotia government earmarked $1.4 million in new funding to combat human trafficking, some of which is trickling down to Truro. In the town, there is one housing support worker and a trustee who can help at-risk youth find secure, stable housing. The province said rent subsidies are available and the Truro Homeless Outreach Society can also connect people to safe and affordable housing.
Truro Mayor Bill Mills said he’s open to the idea of a youth shelter, but it’s going to be a tough sell right now to get funding from the municipality because everyone is being stretched.
“On the surface, if we could pull this off and have a youth shelter and the right people in place… sure, why not,” he said, adding that a letter to council would be the first step.