The table was set and the perogies were hot as 18 homeless LGBTQ youth broke bread together last week during one of the first family-style meals at the new home of an Edmonton youth support agency.
Project coordinator Corey Wyness gets emotional as he recalls the dinner, a marker of what the community health empowerment and wellness (CHEW) program has become since it opened in 2014.
The previous basement location could barely fit more than four people at a time. But last Thursday, about two dozen people sat comfortably in the new 1,700-square-foot home, just a few doors down from its old space on Jasper Avenue and 117th Street.
As Wyness looked around the dinner table, he saw a chosen family of young people in the closest thing some have to a home.
“These youth wouldn’t normally have access to that anywhere else because they don’t feel safe and they can’t just be themselves,” he said. “Here in this space you can just be yourself.”
The program offers LGBTQ young people struggling with homelessness, addictions and mental health issues some respite as well as services, from counselling to housing supports.
On Monday, the program had its official grand reopening at its new home, playfully named the OUTpost. The move has been supported by a $40,000 online fundraising effort, plus $32,000 raised by Lillian Osborne High School as part of its annual “Rock-a-thon” fundraising event.
“It was beautiful to see all these youth come together to support other youth their same age that are on the street,” Wyness said.
Inside the new location, there is space to cook, a lounge area with television and a separate office for counselling sessions — a feature not afforded to the previous location. Wyness also hopes to have showers installed in the coming weeks.
Jadyn Steidl, 23, has been coming to CHEW for around five years. He’s been homeless for more than seven, he says, sleeping outside or taking shelter at the George Spady Centre on any given night.
He says the best day of his life was the day he walked through the doors at CHEW.
“I have some rough days and when I come here, Corey seems to take them all away,” he said. “My friends, I try to keep close because they’re my family.”
Monday’s event included a drag performance that featured the program’s first client. Connor Sims was homeless when he first arrived at CHEW in 2014, turning to prostitution as a means to survive and struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“It made me feel like I belonged somewhere, and also just helped show myself that I had a sense of value and a purpose, that I’m actually worth something,” he said.
Sims is now with a supportive partner and in stable housing, a situation he credits in large part to the program. He has been performing as Chanel Couture since 2012, using recent shows to raise money for the program.
“A lot of these youth get kicked out of their home just for coming out,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t feel safe going to the other resource centres.”
Up to 40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada are LGBTQ, according to statistics co-published by the Canadian Observatory on Homeless. Wyness says CHEW supports about 80 regular clients, with about eight youth coming through the doors every day.
While Monday marked the official reopening, the centre has been offering services out of its new location since October.
“We really didn’t have a lot of the stuff in the space yet, but it was so cold that we had to get the youth off the street,” Wyness said.
The program, part of the University of Alberta institute for sexual minority studies and services, operates on a roughly $200,000 annual budget funded mostly by Children’s Services with additional support from private donors, according to Wyness.
CHEW is one of hundreds of organizations across the province waiting to learn about the status of their Alberta government grants and contracts after the ministry announced it was restructuring support for early childhood interventions in an effort to save $12 million.
“Early intervention contracts were over-complicated to the point that families needed system navigators just to get the help they needed,” said Lauren Armstrong, press secretary for Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz.
About 300 organizations were asked to reapply for funding after the government cancelled 450 grants and contracts last November. The government is expected to make an announcement on grant recipients this month.
“We’re hopeful that things will work out because it’s needed,” Wyness said.
“It’s a gap in the services that we’re filling.”