change lives.

Creating safe housing for youth

It’s not a day that Christina Fowler is likely to ever forget.

Christina, the CEO of the Saint John Learning Exchange, spotted a group of young people gathered in the hallway – not unusual. What caught her notice was the huge backpacks a couple of them had on their backs.

“They looked like they would tip over,” she says. So she walked up to them and asked.

It turned out that they were staying at a rooming house where theft and distrust were rampant so these teens had taken to carrying all of their belongings with them wherever they went.

“I don’t take a lot home with me. But this bothered me,” she would share later. “I remember thinking, ‘Saint John, this is not the best we can do.’”

Youth come to the Learning Exchange to learn, to earn a diploma, to find meaningful work. But Christina knew all too well that they would not succeed at this without a safe place to call home.

That backpack encounter prompted Christina to call us looking for emergency funding so that these young people could secure safe housing. Through United Way’s Atlantic Compassion Fund, we were able to answer her plea.

“I’m so grateful to the United Way for moving so fast to help us,” Christina says. “Having the United Way – a willing funder that listens to the needs of the most vulnerable and works to address things quickly – is what makes our community stronger.”

But she didn’t stop there, continuing to make calls to look for support and options to address the housing crisis for youth in the city.

“This is unacceptable,” she would tell them. “As a community, we need to stand behind our youth.”

The Learning Exchange went after additional funding from the Greater Saint John Community Foundation through its Smart & Caring Grants program. Combined with other sources, that support was enough for an initial half-dozen (by then nicknamed the “United Way Six”) to have a safe place to live for two years.

The Learning Exchange began working collaboratively with the Teen Resource Centre and Housing Alternatives to explore the potential of building a 12-unit living complex for youth. The complex would include a training centre and case management to support the youth.

Even if successful in making that a reality, there is still a journey ahead – nearly 50 youth are on a waiting list for safe housing.

Says Christina: “We are looking at this through a housing-first lens – believing that when youth are safe and supported through case management their education and employment goals will have a greater chance for success.”