By Alison Northcott
We walk the same streets in the same neighbourhood. Our paths cross, but circumstances lead us different ways.
This year, Leanne Iceruk has walked both those paths.
Iceruk, a third-year social work student at Ryerson, is doing her job placement at the Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, located behind Ryerson on Yonge street south of Gerrard Street.
The 21-year old works in Evergreen’s resource centre, where she helps street youth between the ages of 16 and 24 find jobs, training and housing.
A branch of the Yonge Street Mission, Evergreen has a drop-in centre, a health centre, all designed to help homeless youths in downtown Toronto.
I arrive in the front lobby of Evergreen Tuesday morning at around 10:30 a.m., shortly before the City of Toronto issues this year’s second extreme cold weather alert. With the wind chill, it will feel colder than 30 below on Toronto’s streets tonight.
Down the hall, in the Evergreen’s large kitchen-area, several young people are preparing food for the 1:00 p.m. drop-in lunch. They are a part of Evergreen’s peer mentoring program, an initiative that trains and prepares youths for jobs in the community.
Iceruk comes upstairs from the resource centre to meet me. Upon seeing her, one of the guys from the kitchen comes running across the room to greet her.
“Hey Leanne, how’s it going? How were your holidays?”
“Great,” she replies.
“Meet any husbands?” he asks. She laughs as we head down the stairs.
“No, maybe next year. How were your holidays?”
“Ok,” he replies, heading down the hallway ahead of us. “Good. They were good.”
“Did you get to see your little girl, finally?”
He says nothing, shaking his head as he walks away.
The resource centre is a bright, tidy room. Its walls are lined with posters, brochures and notices. It’s like a small library of employment and housing information. On the housing board in the middle of the room, a staff member is posting a black-and-white highlighted print-out: “URGENT: DELIVER IMMEDIATELY: EXTREME COLD WEATHER ALERT IN EFFECT.”
When the resource centre opens at 12:00 p.m., I meet Erich Herman. Sitting across the table from me, Herman, 19, sips coffee from a small Styrofoam cup. He’s dressed in his work clothes; an orange hard hat, a grey hooded sweatshirt, a plaid jacket, faded blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Herman loves his job.
He works for a demolition company, a job Evergreen helped him get recently through their work subsidy program. But his shift was cancelled today because of the weather.
“Unfortunately, it’s too cold to work today,” he says. Herman has been on his own, on and off the streets, since he was 15. For the past year he’s been staying at the YMCA. But one week and two days ago, he tells me, he finally got his own place. He’s been dropping into Evergreen for about two years. When he’s in the neighbourhood, he says he avoid Ryerson and has noticed that many Ryerson students avoid Evergreen.
“They kind of go around us. They have a tendency to kind of ignore Covenant House and Evergreen and go the other way,” he says.
Iceruk says she has noticed the same thing about some of her fellow students.
“One of my friends told me that whenever he walks home from school, he makes sure that he avoids Evergreen,” she says. “People are scared shitless of it.”
Iceruk says this fear perpetuates a negative attitude towards street youth in the area. “A lot of people are so close-minded and so ridiculous that they don’t see them as people. They really do see them as something way lower than us.”
This attitude is the reason Herman tries to stay away from Ryerson.
“I wish (Ryerson students) would just get off their high horses and learn to put their heads forward a little instead of turning their noses up at people,” he says. “I’m probably just as smart as any of them. I’ve just had a different road. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. I had to work really early in life. Maybe if things had gone better, I’d been one of those students too, looking from your perspective.”
Herman is hoping to finish grade 12 this summer before heading back to Nova Scotia, where he grew up. Eventually, he says, he would like to go to university and take architecture.
Andrea Earl, 25, a street youth worker at Evergreen, runs the centre’s arts program. Her hands-on teaching methods allow youth to participate in art classes, writing workshops, open-mic sessions and guest speaker presentations. Earl also puts together a zine that features a collection of poetry and stories written by Evergreen clients. Earl says student placement programs, like the one Iceruk is doing, are a step towards building community between the university and the people and neighbourhood that surround it.
“People have a perspective of street youth that prevents them from developing community with them,” she says. “What you learn when you work with them] is that they’re not just tough, scary people out on the streets; that they’re actually fragile human beings who are in need of love and support and who generally have had a pretty bad experience in life and who struggle with things that have created a scenario where they have fallen through the cracks of the support system.”
Iceruk says she can draw many parallels between her life and the lives and those she helps at Evergreen. But their circumstances are where their differences lie.
“I realize more and more that I am different than them in many ways, but I’m like them in many ways as well.
“Some of them are smarter than me. Some of them have the same education as me, but they’ve had a rougher life. So I just look at them as equal.”
Earl recognizes the value of connecting students to different people and organizations in their neighbourhoods.
“As you build relationships with people and bridges are crossed, it becomes more evident how you can be a community,” she says.
Upstairs, the drop-in centre has opened and about 40 young people are milling around the large room, eating pizza and Caesar salad at small lunch tables. In the middle of the room, some young people are playing pool and foosball. The walls in this room are a giant canvas of artwork –colourful sketches and painting –created by clients through the arts program.
Sheridan, 21, sits on a painted wooden box near the pool table. She’s just come in from outside and her cheeks are still flushes from the cold. Iceruk introduces me as a Ryerson journalism student and Sheridan’s eyes light up.
“Oh,” she says, “you’re studying what I want to study: Journalism at Ryerson. I’m a writer. We’re both writers,” she says, indicating Paul, 24, who’s sitting to her left.
“I would love to go to school at Ryerson,” Sheridan says. “It’s been a goal of mine since I was a kid to be a journalist.” But she says she had to drop out of high school at 17 and doesn’t have her Grade 12. Since then, she says, things have not been easy.
“I had to give my son up for adoption last year and I don’t have any money and I’m also disabled. So it’s kind of puts down my self-esteem,” she says.
Paul says he’d go to any university that would accept him, but there’s one major element that keeps him coming Evergreen, instead of going to classes at Ryerson.
“I don’t have access because I don’t have money,” he says. Sheridan and Paul both say it’s difficult for them to come to this neighbourhood and see people their age heading to classes they only wish they could attend.
“That’s why I don’t come to this area that much,” Sheridan says. “It’s hard to see the students because it sort of reminds me what I should be doing at 21 years old and I haven’t even gotten my Grade 12.”
Nathan, 16, is also hoping to go to Ryerson one day. He first came to Evergreen about six months ago while living on the streets after moving to Toronto from Sudbury.
“It sucked,” he says of life on Toronto’s streets. “I was sleeping in alleyways and under bridges and stuff like that and it was just crazy, especially when it rained, because I’m sleeping in a sleeping bag and it’s raining so I kind of have to get curled up inside of it and be freezing cold at night.”
Since then Evergreen has helped him find a place to live and, this week, he’s going back to school, picking up in Grade 9 where he left off. He’ll start his new part-time job at Dominion this weekend. Nathan says he’d like to one day move to New York and work as a nurse.
“Sooner or later, I will be going to Ryerson to take the nursing program,” he says.
Ironically, Iceruk says the most valuable lessons she’s learned while going to Ryerson, have been at Evergreen. Her work placement has taught her skills you can’t learn in the classroom.
“They can teach you in class, but you can’t really apply it. You have to be in the situation in order to really know how to act or know what to say or know what to do,” she says. Through her work with young people at Evergreen, Iceruk has developed a new perspective of homelessness.
“Before, it used to be like, me and homeless,” she says, gesturing to demonstrate a separation between the two ideas. “Now, it’s just, us.”