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Nightstop program hit by pandemic hopes to host homeless youth in spare bedrooms again


In a Richmond Hill, Ont., park, Jesse Vacarciuc sings “you can’t fight his pride, and you can’t change his mind.” 

Writing music, playing guitar and singing gives Vacarciuc, 20, an outlet to express the emotional distress that comes from struggling with mental illness and a troubled past. 

“A lot of my songs actually come from a place of pain,” said Vacarciuc, who uses the pronouns “they” and “their.”  

Almost two years ago, they went from growing up in a suburban home to living on the streets.

They were suicidal while living at home, and life wasn’t “stable or healthy.” One day, there was a physical fight, and they had to leave.  

“I’m not putting up with my mom, raising her hand at me when I’m an adult,” Vacarciuc said.

Vacarciuc moved in with their boyfriend but was assaulted and yet again had to leave — this time with nowhere to go. 

Vacarciuc stayed a bit on the street but lived mostly in abandoned houses or in parks. 

‘Family dynamic I’ve always wanted’

Then Vacarciuc stayed in various shelters before finding 360 Kids, an agency serving at-risk kids and young adults in York Region, just north of Toronto.

Vacarciuc stayed in the youth shelter there, then applied for a new program called Nightstop, in which “hosts” offer their spare bedrooms to youth who would otherwise be in a shelter or on the street.  

WATCH | Jesse Vacarciuc sings to deal with emotional pain:

Jesse Vacarciuc struggles with mental illness and became homeless after suffering abuse. A program at 360 Kids in Richmond Hill, Ont., provided Vacarciuc with housing and also gave the youth a guitar as a birthday gift. 3:27

One of Vacarciuc’s hosts, a woman named Val, not only offered a bed to sleep in but also the knowledge that someone cared.

“You have no idea how good it felt. Like dude, I cried,” Vacarciuc said.  

“I would sit there at the dining table … she’d just sit with me and listen to me talk, and I was just like, ‘Wow. It’s a little late, but I’m finally getting, like, the family dynamic I’ve always wanted.'” 

Feeling supported, Vacarciuc eventually moved into an apartment with their current boyfriend. Leaving the program mere months before COVID-19 struck was pure luck. 

When the pandemic hit Canada last March, 360 Kids had to halt Nightstop to protect both host families and youth against the risk of infecting each other with the coronavirus. 

“It really set us back actually,” said Bonnie Harkness, director of strategic partnerships and program development at 360 Kids.  

WATCH | Families offer rooms for homeless youth in York Region:

Stephen Gaetz, president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, says in addition to leaving young people at risk of living on the streets or in shelters, the pandemic’s effect on services means some likely aren’t leaving abusive or violent homes. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

In addition to shutting down a valuable service to youth in York Region, the pandemic also prevented 360 Kids from moving forward with its plan to expand the program to other communities across Canada. 

COVID-19 has cut off many essential supports to kids at risk of homelessness nationwide, said Stephen Gaetz, a professor of education at York University and president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. 

“Many of the things we expect of people during pandemics [such as physical distancing and handwashing] implicitly assume that someone has a home,” said Gaetz. 

In addition to the concern that stopping services such as Nightstop will leave kids sleeping on the street or in shelters, he said, many others will feel they have no option but to stay in dangerous home environments, including suffering abuse from someone they live with.  

‘Such an important thing’

One side effect of the COVID-19 lockdown is a rise in tensions and violence inside homes, Gaetz said, so kids and young adults are increasingly vulnerable, “and their ability to get help is lessened at the same time.”

The Nightstop program is particularly valuable, he said, because it diverts young people from shelters and the streets and keeps them in their own community. 

“They’re safe, they’re getting food, they ideally have some privacy and hopefully they’re staying connected to school and, you know, the other adults in their life that could be helpers, right? Like teachers, coaches, you know, their doctor or nurse,” Gaetz said. “It’s such an important thing.”

Plus, it can work “in any community in Canada of any size,” he said. 

The Nightstop team is working hard to restart the program, Harkness said. 

As they try to recruit more people to be hosts, they’ve developed a plan to make it COVID-19 safe by having youth self-isolate in a facility for 14 days before they are placed in host homes. 

They’re also asking potential hosts to consider keeping the same youth in their home for a longer period of time, rather than having different kids staying with them on different nights. 

“Everybody wants to feel like they have a home to go to, and it’s not just a roof over their head,” Harkness said. “[Youth] don’t belong in institutions. They belong with people who care about them. And whether that’s your blood relative or someone in your community, [it] doesn’t matter, as long as they feel cared for.” 

“When we don’t step up to house these young people, somebody else will. But they’re not the people that we want to be stepping up. They’re the drug dealers and the pimps.”

Vacarciuc, who now has a job and is going to school, hopes the program restarts soon for the sake of other youth going through the same struggles they did.  

“It totally changes, like, your outlook,” Vacarciuc said. “It makes you feel things that you’ve always needed to feel as a homeless youth or as a youth who can’t stay at home, right?  

“The whole, like, someone caring about you, someone worrying about you and worrying about your well-being, you know? Not all of us get that on the street.”


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