Wider Horizons

Downtown Vancouver is more than mere miles away from Saskia Schopman’s hometown of Vauxhall. saskiaDuring the last seven years working with at-risk youth, Schopman has peered into the alleys of drug abuse, prostitution and homelessness.

From rural roads to busy streets, this small-town girl is helping kids trade in their needles for new beginnings, a journey that, for her, began at Lethbridge College.

After high school, Schopman spent a year in Tokyo before enrolling in the Child and Youth Care program, intending to work with kids in schools. That goal quickly changed.

“In the first week I read a book called Children in the Game; it was for one of [instructor] Ron Solinski’s classes. It was all about street youth and girls involved in prostitution. After that, it was my dream: all I wanted to do was work with that kind of marginalized population.”

After graduating, Schopman was hired at Covenant House Vancouver, an organization founded in the 1960s in New York now with locations all over the world. It specializes in getting youth aged 13-24 off the streets, providing them with food, clothing and shelter. Schopman worked there full-time for five years, dropping to part-time a year ago when she was hired by the Pacific Community Resource Society.

For a year at Covenant House, she worked in Community Support Services as a street youth outreach worker. It took her down some dark passages.

“We meet the youth exactly where they’re at; if they’re sleeping in a back alley in downtown Vancouver, we’re going to that back alley,” she says. “We carry backpacks with juice boxes, granola bars, hygiene supplies, a first-aid kit and referral papers, so if they need some kind of referral, we have those numbers handy. But our goal is to start a relationship with them, so we make sure they know our services and tell them to come to the drop-in centre if they need to.”

Once clients have made the decision to take advantage of the drop-in centre, they are provided with food, clothing, shelter, and referrals to drug and alcohol counseling if necessary. Schopman notes the age range has been expanded to 24 because certain experiences have stunted their growth, and some can be functioning at a level well below their actual age.

After a year, Schopman decided she needed a change and worked in the Covenant House shelter for six months before changing her path once again.

“The kids in the shelter are starting to stabilize, they’re getting their life on track, they’re not using anymore; I really wanted to help the kids that were really raw, still in their addiction, using and sleeping outside. That was where I felt my heart needed to be.” After four years,  Schopman has lived the experience.

“You’re always with your partner; you never work alone because it’s not safe; you look for anyone that looks like they may be under the age of 25,” she says. “When you do this kind of work for a long time, you’ll pick it out and start to notice signs. You’ll notice who is just a little bit different from the average teenager or who has shoes that are just a little bit too big for them, because usually they’ve been donated.”

Covenant House workers make their rounds twice a day; once in the morning from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and again in the evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Schopman says she finds the night outreach most effective, but mornings are also crucial.

“There’s a team that goes out in the morning to connect with the kids just waking up, who have been sleeping under the bridges, to let them know we’re open at 10 and they can come see us,” she says. “A lot of times if kids run away from other provinces, they end up coming off the bus first thing in the morning and that’s the best way to catch them, before they end up potentially going down the path of being on the street. Apparently, if you reach a youth before they spend four days on the street, they actually have a higher success rate than if they spend more than four days sleeping outside.”

Schopman says despite the potential risks of her work, she is rarely afraid.

“We’re trained in non-violent crisis intervention, we’re trained to do restraints; we don’t do that, but I know how to fend off someone who’s going to come at me,” she says. “I’ve been in alleys in the downtown east side where I’ve watched people shoot up, and they’re in their world; they don’t want to hurt me. It’s not like the stories you hear of people running around, trying to stab you with needles; that doesn’t happen. You just have to be smart and use your common sense.”

Schopman soon realized the youth she was helping needed a permanent solution to their living situation. So she created a housing program within Covenant House that has shown success.

“It’s great to get all these people off the street, but if they can’t find housing, what’s the point? We’re just Band-Aiding the problem,” she says. “The housing market in Vancouver is so difficult; for me it was difficult. Can you imagine a youth who has no housing experience, doesn’t know how to communicate, doesn’t know how to dress, has been sleeping outside and has never had an alarm clock to try and find a house?”

Schopman says her first client for the housing program had been sleeping under bridges, was addicted to various drugs including crystal meth, and worked hard to transform his life. After three years, he has remained on track and is still living in the house found for him.

Schopman has a few ideas of why so many kids wind up on the street: family breakdown, abuse, mental health, addiction.

“That’s the problem we were seeing: we would find these 13-, 14-year-olds that have run away because of abuse, alcoholism, fighting, and their thought process is ‘I would rather sleep out here than live in my home.’” she says. “Is it right for a 13-year-old to be sleeping and shooting up heroin in a back alley? No. But my goal, no matter what job I’m doing or where I’m at, is to build a relationship with this young person. I want to work for them; I want them to know that I’m a safe person that they can come to, talk to, get support if they need it and when they’re ready.”

For the last year, Schopman has been an outreach worker for Pacific Community on a crime-prevention program called IRAYL (Inter-Regional At-Risk Youth Link). It reaches out to kids 10 to 15 who tend to congregate at Vancouver’s Sky-train stations (the equivalent of Calgary’s C-Train service), offering them various supports.

“Our goal is to connect with those youth around the Sky-train and try and refer them to a community program, an after-school sports program, an art group, something that’s going to funnel their energy into positive behaviours as opposed to hanging out at the station smoking pot, for instance,” she says.

“I go to all these community meetings and say, ‘there’s this guy who’s been hanging out in downtown Vancouver; let’s watch him’ or ‘this girl who’s been prostituting and her pimp is running her all over the city; let’s keep our eyes out for her.’ That way we can tell the different outreach workers in different areas who we see and where they are.”

Schopman says young people in the sex trade can be the most difficult to reach. It can take up to seven years to extricate them because their idea of how men and women relate is completely different, and they often have to be retrained in their way of thinking.

“To successfully exit the sex trade, it takes a really long time, especially if you have been controlled by a pimp. There’s a whole bunch of power dynamics there around whether you love this person or not despite the fact that they hurt you. Because of the Internet, the sex trade has really exploded to the point where we don’t see as many kids on the strolls as we used to. Now they’re selling themselves; they don’t even need to be controlled.”

However, when trying to help women under a pimp’s control, Schopman notes for the safety of the woman, it’s best not to interfere while they’re working.

“We know the pimps are watching them and aware of what’s going on; I’m not going to go up to her and make that situation worse for that young woman,” she says. “I’m going to go to public places, put out brochures, open a drop-in centre for sex-trade workers, or go somewhere where I know they’ll be and leave matchbooks with the question: ‘Are you ready to leave the game?’ and inside is a phone number. That girl can put it in their pocket, and when they’ve had it, they can call a number and go get help.”

Schopman prefers to measure success on an individual basis.

“There are kids that I worked with five years ago that are doing wonderful. But by the same token, there’s kids that I worked with five years ago that are still on the streets, doing drugs, working the sex trade. But I see so many kids that are so resilient and they keep fighting every single day to be great. That’s amazing.”

Schopman says she would like to finish her degree and open up her own centre for youth. “Ideally, I’d like to open up something photography- and art-based with street involved youth. There’s a want out there, so if I can mix my love for photography and my love for street youth, perfect.”

Wider Horizons
Christina Boese (Communication Arts 2008)
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