Beyond Walls: Building Home and Cultivating Skills

Written by Niki Paxton, RN. 

Home is so much more than our physical space; it becomes intertwined with our emotional experiences, memories, and personal history that shape our perception of ourselves. Home is intimately tied to our sense of identity and self-definition. So, what happens when we don’t have a home? Or, what happens if we haven’t grown up in a safe space that provides us with a sense of belonging, comfort, security, and stability, with trusted adults? What happens is that essential life skills learned in a home environment are missing and with them is the crucial aspect of our well-being and the understanding and importance of health.

Youth who experience homelessness face a myriad of traumas in their young lives. During a time when they should feel protected and safe, warm, and cared for, they have had to overcome fear of harm, to survive. When they enter Covenant House Vancouver (CHV), they may experience the feeling of home, for the first time.

At CHV, staff offer a person-centred approach to address the complex needs of youth, as the support that each youth needs in order to thrive is as unique as they are. The Crisis Program goes beyond meeting the basic needs of youth. Youth get a safe place to sleep, nutritious food, clothing, and warm showers—the essentials they would have in a nurturing home environment. Youth also receive wraparound support services to help them work through trauma, address any medical needs, and to help them prepare for the future that they deserve. Young people can stay in the Crisis Program free of charge for as long as they need, because getting through a crisis takes as long as it takes.

The warm and calm environment allows them to breathe and let down their guard. They are safe, and eventually, they will access the support and services that they need.  

Youth experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from mental health challenges, complicated by single or complex trauma. Without a trusted person to advocate for them or help them identify when they need help and treatment, these illnesses worsen and further prevent youth from developing the skills required to move beyond the trauma that rules their lives. This cycle breaks when youth choose to walk through our doors and ask for help.

Along with safe, supported housing, young people can receive employment support based on the skills that they already have, what skills we can help them develop, and what kind of job they are best suited for. Then, by navigating systems like Indeed to look for job opportunities, they are guided through the process of submitting applications. They may need to apply for assistance on government websites, which can be difficult to navigate. For those of us who may access these systems regularly, we have been taught or shown how to use them somewhere along the way. For youth experiencing homelessness, the dedicated and caring staff at CHV have become this teaching resource.

The conversation around housing is ongoing and is an essential goal that we focus on at CHV. While home is much more than a house, it starts there. When youth prepare to move out, they create a “future budget” to identify all the costs they will face and the need to determine wants versus needs. Youth establish what they can afford, so that finding a place to live becomes a realistic goal that helps build confidence, because youth know that they can attain it. Understanding the importance of financial health and how it leads to improved emotional and mental health is crucial.

Grocery shopping tours, cooking workshops, and being introduced to new foods, help youth learn how to shop for healthy foods on a budget. These foods form the basis of good nutrition, which is essential for long-lasting health and to heal from trauma and any health challenges they may have encountered due to homelessness. 

Our homes often reflect our cultures. People plan and consider their meal options, when approaching the holidays, based on their cultures and traditions. They share their dishes with loved ones, to build relationships and memories. By doing this, they create positive energy and experiences. Cooking workshops at CHV help provide youth with the foundations needed for youth to be able to share the beauty of their cultures, in their homes, through the smells, tastes, and colours, of the foods they prepare.

Housing, budgeting, grocery shopping, meal prep, and cooking are considered hard skills and are integral to obtaining and maintaining a home. Soft skills are equally as important, if not more so, as learning them fills the home with our positive energy, emotions, and sense of identity. Leaving the safety of CHV with the understanding of the importance of self-care, how to develop relationships and healthy boundaries, and how to communicate with others, will help ensure that the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of the young people will thrive.

Self-care can be difficult for many people, and learning to let it be an essential consideration is encouraged, at CHV. Since this has many components to consider, we weave it into many fun activities for the youth. Youth who connect with physical exercise are encouraged to use the fantastic gym. Those who find emotional self-care in music or art benefit from rooms fully equipped for them to nurture and express themselves. The importance that CHV puts on soft skills, such as self-care, equips youth to embrace life’s challenges, long after they leave our services.

Preparing youth to live full, independent lives is at the heart of what we do, and teaching life skills enables youth not only to dream of a home outside the safety of CHV’s walls, but also enables youth to create a sanctuary of their own.