by Curlan Campbell
- Cut-off age for residential care is 18 years
- Housing is major issue faced by teens and young adults coming out of care homes
- Many stories of young adults ageing out of group homes and facing loneliness and insecurity
Imagine being so hungry that your stomach feels like it is rubbing against your back. While at it, try imagining sleeping on the streets at night or on some random floor in the back of an alleyway. These are experiences for numerous previously abused and abandoned children, having to exit many of the orphanages once they reach 18. Where do you end up living after the foster care process ends?
This question never crosses the minds of those privileged to have a roof over their heads and food to eat. However, this has been the everyday life for a 21-year-old after ageing out of the Queen Elizabeth Home for Children (QEH), where he was since he was 8 months old after the state took him away from his mother, who was unable to take care of him and his brothers.
“Some days when things [are] tough, I will only have some dry bread and water”
As a pre-teen, the young man later relocated to Father Mallaghan’s Home for Boys, whereupon, reaching the age of 18, the cut-off for residential care, had to leave and has been homeless ever since. He remembers the staff there attempting to prepare him for life on the streets as an adult. Still, he could never imagine life being so difficult after transitioning into adulthood.
“In the home (orphanage), they always used to say, “hard times will come for you.” All the staff used to tell us [this] that we are going to reach a [difficult] place when we reach adulthood, and you recognised that it is not the same life you lived when you were younger. Hearing this helped prepare me for the outside world and made me more street-smart, but coming out into the world, I realised that it was tougher than I thought,” he said.
“During the day, I work, and at night, I have to find a place to sleep outside, sometimes on a beach chair in the back of a building. I get to eat once in a while because life is tough, and you have to try to make your life better because you can’t stay one way in life forever,” he said.
While his situation of homelessness is indeed dire and in urgent need of attention, his reality is not unique since there are many stories of young adults ageing out of group homes who can relate to either all or some of his experiences of growing up in an orphanage and then facing an abyss of loneliness and insecurity. As he navigates life on the streets, he is optimistic that his current situation will improve one day.
Another boy was placed in the Bel Air Home for Children and Adolescents at the age of 3 after his mother, who is now deceased, abandoned him. He struggled with a learning disability that required him to attend a school for special education. From 11 to 18, he stayed at Father Mallaghan’s, but luckily, he lives with his father, although he still struggles to make ends meet. Despite a learning disability, he pursued carpentry and sewing at New Life Organisation (NEWLO) and is quite vocal in articulating his dreams of creating a better future for himself by chasing his passion for electronics and having his own business as an electronic repairman, as he has a knack for electronics. Today, without formal education, he can repair electronic speakers and install music systems in vehicles, which he does for a living.
“I never formally learned the skill, but since I was young, I was always trying to fix something, and when I was in the [orphanage], I used to collect old fans that people threw away and attempted to fix them, and there are times I am surprisingly successful,” he said.
Both young men are grateful for the care they received at the homes, and also for Reach Within, a Grenada-based NGO dedicated to supporting young people with trauma and homelessness, and advocating for policy and system reforms.
“People don’t associate the wonderful island of Grenada with a homelessness problem. It’s not as if you walk around and see homeless people begging on the street corners, but this problem of post-residential care adolescents most often having no safe or nurturing place to go is a profound secret that has to be changed,” said Founder and Director of Reach Within Dr Karen Lawson. She also noted that this is not an issue specific to Grenada as many Eastern Caribbean islands face the same problem given the shortage of housing options for such young people.
Reach Within was formed in memory of Dr Lawson’s late husband, Bartholomew J Lawson, an Ambassador-at-Large for Grenada, who passed away in 2003. Through their drop-in centre and a community outreach model, Reach Within provides homeless adolescents with a temporary haven to have meals, showers, clothing, toiletries, and other much-needed items. Additionally, Reach Within offers mentorship programmes that teach life skills, making these young people more employable. The mentorship programmes also teach these teens how to budget their money and help get their national ID cards and other essential documents, among other things.
However, there is a major issue that the organisation finds particularly frustrating. “The one area where we struggle is in advocating for housing for the young people with whom we work,” Dr Lawson said. “We tried for many years to enlist the previous government in solving the issues faced by teens and young adults coming out of care homes — most importantly, housing. We proposed that Reach Within would lease government land on which to build housing or a government building that we then could manage for the kids, so that they have a place to stay. Sadly, these pleas fell on deaf ears. We are hopeful that the current administration’s emphasis on the nation’s youth and on transformation will change this story. We have a team of architects and contractors who have designed simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly housing that would serve as a transitional living option. This would give the young people a chance to save money for 2–3 years until they can afford their own places.”
Dr Lawson notes that while Reach Within’s programmes are successful in fostering a sense of purpose, strength, hope, and community in young people, the great degree of instability due to homelessness looms large. Reach Within has worked for 20+ years in developing a model of care for the children and teens living in and ageing out of Grenada’s care homes. They provide emotional support and therapeutic programmes through its evidence-based scientific model of care, which includes 3 pillars.
- Rhythm increases self-regulation: Leading trauma experts have found that rhythm can reach the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for survival — and help to calm the nervous system. Reach Within uses therapeutic drumming, swimming, and dance programmes, among other modalities, to increase self-regulation in previously traumatised children living in fight-flight-freeze-fawn states
- Human Connection is a Biological Imperative to Healing: Once a child learns to regulate their nervous system, they are ready for co-regulation with a consistent and loving caregiver. Trauma-informed training and stress reduction retreats for professional caregivers in orphanages and foster care support healthy attachment in adult-child relationships — a key factor in developing resiliency.
- Continued Rhythmic Therapies and Connection: For teens aged 18 years, Reach Within’s Transitional Living Programme is a community safety net that provides continued self-regulation programmes and mentoring, job and life skills training, housing advocacy, and emergency resources such as food and other necessities.
At present, Reach Within is working with teenagers who are residing at the orphanages but nearing 18, and those who have already transitioned out of the orphanage, some of whom are being ostracised by the community.
Dr Lawson said: “When kids are street-connected, they are more vulnerable to using drugs, whether it’s weed or anything more. We do our best to keep them on track for a healthy life and to teach them to hold their heads up high despite their unfortunate beginnings. Unfortunately, they tend to be stigmatised because of where they came from. So there are a lot of people who pick fights with them or people in the neighbourhoods who just assume that they’re up to no good.”
The Reach Within Director said another critical aspect of their programme is job placement. “The important thing about our job placement programme is that we work closely with employers- these are wonderful people from within the Grenadian community who are really open to giving these kids a chance in life. These employers understand that the kids may need some extra time to learn the ropes. We’re behind them all the way, teaching them the importance of showing up on time, behaving appropriately on the job, looking people in the eye, and so on, not being on their telephones during the workday, etc. The employers appreciate that there’s scaffolding behind the kids, and the kids feel supported. It typically works out very well”, she explained. “Reach Within measures success by monitoring and evaluating their programs to see how the kids are self-regulating, what they’re learning and whether they are retaining what they’ve learned. And then, of course, the more obvious concrete measures of employment, school placement (for those going to college), healthy relationships, and so on.”
The situation regarding teenagers ageing out of the group homes was brought to the attention of Minister for Social and Community Development, Housing and Gender Affairs, Philip Telesford, who acknowledged that there is a need to address homelessness among the population.
“Housing is a great need in Grenada, and certainly, we do not want anyone living on our streets. We continue to look for funding to address the matter of homelessness. We also appreciate that it is not just getting someone a place to stay, but it is a paradigm shift involving adult literacy, skill training and behaviour conditioning,” Minister Telesford said via email.
The minister also indicated that institutions under government control are responsible for notifying the Government of Grenada of all individuals approaching the respective age of exit. The minister also reassured that the Ministry of Social Development will continue to work with the family to identify suitable accommodation for individuals leaving government institutions in situations where the family has property, and then Government will assist by constructing a home.
While statistics on the state of homelessness in Grenada are not readily available, data indicates that 60% of child welfare claims are the result of confirmed cases of abuse or neglect, which then require authorities to remove the child from their home environment and place them in alternative care. Additionally, 80% of male youth experience homelessness and are at a greater risk of ending up in prison.