Meet Corey, a homeless youth who has been living on the streets of Ottawa for the past year. Corey’s story is pretty inspirational: in the time since we met for this interview four weeks ago, he’s been accepted to Algonquin College, admitted to transitional housing, and started his first week of classes in Algonquin’s General Arts program, despite having to jump some pretty time-consuming and exhausting hurdles to make it all happen.

Corey’s photos were taken outside of Operation Come Home, a drop-in centre on Gloucester Street that serves Ottawa’s street youth; it’s a place where Corey spends a lot of time and has received a lot of support. Please read on to learn about Corey’s life in Ottawa as a homeless youth, his views on street life, and more.

Well, my name is Corey. I do odd jobs, you know, if something comes my way. Usually I find out about gigs through one of the city drop-ins or on Kijiji – that’s where I find most of my jobs. Apart from that, I’m trying to go to school right now. I’m planning on doing General Arts and Sciences- Community Studies so that next year I can get in to the Social Service Worker program at Algonquin. I do a couple of side things – you know, hang out with friends, go to the youth drop-in centres. Stuff like that.

Are you from Ottawa? 

No, actually, I’m from Hawkesbury. It’s about an hour and a half away. It’s a small town. It’s basically the mid-point between Ottawa and Montreal.

What brought you to Ottawa?

Well, I stopped living with my parents. It was kind of a kicked out-slash-I’m leaving scenario, you know? I finished high school, and realized that there was really nothing for me in Hawkesbury. I couldn’t get a job, and there’s no college there or anything. I packed everything up and decided to leave. I had about four garbage bags, some backpacks, a few boxes. I’ve been in Ottawa for about a year and a half now. I lived with my cousin for about two months, and then I moved in to the YMCA’s second-stage housing for about six months. Since then, I’ve been on the streets of Ottawa. I was living on the street before, in Hawkesbury.

Can you tell me about that?

I was technically emancipated from my parents the night before my 18th birthday, but even before that it was this situation where I’d be kicked out of the house most of the time. You know, I was only staying there maybe once or twice a week at most. I got tired of it and just stopped showing up. There were times when I’d get off the bus from school and just go to a buddy’s place, no questions. My parents and I fought a lot, and I just didn’t want to deal with it any more. It was mostly verbal, but sometimes physical between me and my dad. I was finally like, you know what? My eight year old sister is listening to this, exposed to this all the time. I’m not doing that to her any more. So I just got my things and left.  I cut off all communication with my parents – if they found a way to communicate with me, I’d cut it off. Change my phone number, change my email address, change my name on Facebook.

There were nights before that, though – starting sometime around the summer I turned 17 in 2009 – I’d spend quite a few nights on the streets in Hawkesbury when I had nowhere to go. You know what, though, now that I’m in Ottawa I feel like I’m less homeless. I’m still living in shelters and visiting drop-in centres, but at least I can do that here. In Hawkesbury there was just nothing. There was only a food bank that you’d have to pay $5 to access. So if you’re in the streets there, you’re really on the streets, on your own. In Ottawa there are a lot of services. You can stay really well fed at the drop-ins. During the day, I’ll get breakfast at one drop-in, lunch or dinner at another. Especially as a youth, it’s not difficult to feed yourself here. In Hawkesbury, I panhandled a lot, I had to steal. Sometimes I’d sneak into my parent’s house in the middle of the night after everyone had gone to bed and grab food from the pantry and leave again.

But, I mean, here in Ottawa the services are incredible. For example, the drop-in down the street is Operation Come Home. They help youth aged 16 to 24, and they have an employment program where you get paid minimum wage to learn how to make a resume and find a job. There’s also the Youth Services Bureau, which has a lot of the same services but for people 16 to 21. They have daily lunches, counselling, showers, computers, a nurse practitioner. You can’t live at the drop-ins, but for youth 16 to 21 there are two shelters run by the YSB. They’re more of a safe haven compared to a lot of the adult shelters. I’ve stayed at the Mission, the Salvation Army, the Shepherds of Good Hope, and they’re pretty unpleasant. A lot of older people, just angry at life. A lot of violence and drugs, and your stuff will definitely get stolen.

Since I’m 19, I don’t qualify for overflow any more. Overflow is when there’s no room at one of the youth shelters, they’ll find a place for the 16 and 17 year olds to stay. A couch in the common room, or if it’s really bad the city will give you a hotel room until a bed is available. But, if you’re 18 or over, you get sent to the adult shelters. I have anxiety issues, and when I go to those places my anxiety just gets out of control. I’ll just sit on Rideau Street instead, stay up all night, and then pass out on a couch in one of the drop-in centres during the day.

Can you tell me what living on the streets in Ottawa has been like for you?

Yeah. It’s not something I enjoy. There are some people who live on the streets and enjoy it, it’s not a problem. For me, one day I want to get out of the shelter systems and get away from the drop-ins. Get away from Ontario Works and all that. I’d like to have my own apartment and a full-time job doing something I like to do. I’d like to get to that point where I have a wife and two kids and a house, and a backyard. All that! Temporarily, though, being on the streets is something I’ve become accustomed to. I have a lot of services I can access, so it’s not like when I was in Hawkesbury and would have to sleep in a park somewhere on a bench or in a play structure.

Right now when I have to I’ll go to street corner with a sign and panhandle for the day. I don’t keep a sign with me because police view panhandling as illegal and if they search your backpack and find one you can get in trouble. They’ll charge you a $65 fine if you’re panhandling. I mean, realistically, if you get a ticket for panhandling you just walk away and rip it up. How are you gonna pay that? You’re already panhandling for your dinner.

What kind of response do you get from people when you’re panhandling in Ottawa?

When I’m panhandling myself, passers-by will just walk by you like you’re a ghost. It’s hard, you can’t really make that much. People don’t even stop for a second to read the sign.

When I do panhandle, I find a piece of cardboard and write “Hungry, broke, homeless – anything helps.” Anything someone give does actually help. Change, food. Yesterday I was panhandling on Elgin Street, and a guy stopped and actually chatted with me for a few minutes, and then he offered to bring me to Subway. He bought me a drink and a sub. He said I could get anything on the menu, so I got something cheap because I didn’t want him to have to pay so much. I was surprised, he didn’t even get anything for himself. I guess he was just going in that direction and decided to help me out. That’s really rare. More often people just drop off a little change, you know, 25 cents, maybe a dollar. It seems like everyone is just on the go, and no one has even a minute to stop, read the sign, and be interested. I mean, if you get someone a large drink from McDonald’s for a buck that’ll keep someone full for almost a whole day, but no one thinks to do that.

If I don’t have a legitimate reason to panhandle, I won’t do it. Most people who are panhandling don’t like doing it any more than the people walking down the street like seeing it. It’s not like you wake up in the morning and are like, “Oh, panhandling sounds fun. I think that’s what I’ll do today.”  Sometimes you just have to though. I’ll have to feed myself, or pay a bill, and maybe I didn’t find any paying odd-jobs that day. If people just stop for a minute and ask, “What are you doing here?” if they’re kind enough to stop and ask me about why I’m there, I find that really generous. It gives you hope when someone is nice, you don’t feel so invisible.

You’ve been working very hard to get into college. I was really impressed by all of the obstacles you’ve been able to overcome, like getting ID and chasing paperwork, and just the pure logistics of getting into and attending school while you’re living on the street.  That’s been pretty difficult for you, right? 

Yeah. To get into school I had to go through this process for OSAP so that I could prove I was emancipated, on my own. I had to prove that I can’t rely on my parents. I also had to get a birth certificate, a Social Insurance Number, and I had to do the college application all by myself. I had to be pretty motivated to do that. I’ve always been pretty motivated about that stuff, though. When I was in Hawkesbury I made sure I got my high school done before I left, even though I was living on the streets for part of it. My objectives since I was sixteen or seventeen have been to get out of Hawkesbury, get my life set up. I really thought that after those first two months I was in Ottawa living with my cousin that I’d be able to have my life set up, that I’d be fine. When those two months were up and I didn’t have a job, a place, or any of the things I was hoping for, I was really struggling. I had gotten away from homelessness for a while, but I ended up right back there.

I felt really low, like a nobody who couldn’t accomplish anything. But I just thought, well, you know what? Even though I’m homeless my goal is to still go to school. I can make that happen. There are students who do it, who go to college even though they’re homeless. It’s a long process and it’s going to take some time, obviously, but I’ll feel pretty good when I’m done it.

The reason I want to do the Social Service Worker program at Algonquin is because I’m always playing the councillor role with my friends. I’ve always been like that with people in my life. Also, the actual councillors at the drop-ins I go to are really amazing. They’re committed and always helping out. I want to be able to do that, I want to be that person. I want to work in drop-ins because I’ve been there, or maybe in a group home. I want to get into something that I can relate to.  

My goals right now are to just get into school and find a job, and then find a place to live. I hope things will fall into place. I’m not doing too bad.

What do you want people to know about being a homeless youth?

Like I said, people stereotype all the time. People think that youth are all about drugs, alcohol, causing havoc. Honestly, that’s not true. I’ll admit there are some youth that do abuse drugs and commit crimes, but I would rather people look at individuals – especially homeless youth – and actually ask, you know, “Why are you in this situation?” Actually pay attention. We might be on the streets and might not have a lot to believe in, but everyone has a goal and a past and a reason for being where they are. If people take five minutes out of their day to listen to someone’s story, that’s all we need. Telling your story in those five minutes could inspire someone to help out and maybe see that there’s more than stereotypes, but also it’s just nice to feel like you’re not invisible, that someone gives a damn about why you’re sitting on that corner. Feeling like you’re not just a shadow or a nobody, that you might actually be interesting, is really motivating.

That’s all I want to get across, really. If you have the time, listen to a youth.