“Everyone who meets her wants to help,” said one Kamloops city councillor of Katherine McParland, the founder of A Way Home Kamloops. McParland spoke to a gathering in Nelson last week about youth who become homeless after aging out of the foster care system. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Foster care is ‘superhighway to homelessness,’ B.C. youth advocate says

Katherine McParland grew up in foster care and lived on the streets

When Katherine McParland was five, she fled to a women’s shelter with her mother who was escaping an abusive relationship. At 13 she was placed in a foster home and then moved through a succession of them through her teenage years. She says those foster homes taught her a lot.

“They taught me how to couch surf and sleep in strange places. I learned how to tote all my belongings in garbage bags. I learned how to be homeless at a quite young age through foster care.”

McParland told her story to about 100 people at a conference on youth homelessness last week in Nelson. She now runs A Way Home, a program in Kamloops that employs a unique set of community partnerships to help homeless youth in new ways, and which is being emulated in other parts of the country.

She said foster care is “the superhighway to homelessness.” If foster homes are not meeting kids’ needs, they tend to run away but have nowhere to go.

“They are making decisions with their feet. They are running away from these placements and are told they are choosing homelessness. I beg to differ. I say they are choosing to find a sense of belonging and we, as communities, need to create this for them.”

She said runaway kids find that sense of belonging with their peers on the street.

“I lived in foster homes where the fridge was locked, so my foster sister and I were accessing the food bank every day.”

She also sometimes lived in group homes.

“There was a group of us kids that no one wanted. They could not find foster homes to take us, and one evening we wrote on the window SPCA FOR KIDS. Us kids identified with the abandoned animals. It was a shoutout for help.”

At 19, McParland aged out of foster care. All government help ended.

“I ended up joining my foster siblings on the street because that was my sense of belonging. That was my family. Shortly after, I met a very abusive man that kicked in the door of my first residence.

“The landlord did not fix the door so the man could get in whenever he wanted. I would try and jump out the window. Eventually I got evicted and all of my items were on the front porch on the first day of snow in November with nowhere to go.

“On the street a group of us youth took a cardboard sign and wrote on it: ‘Youth are aging out of foster care into homelessness, you need to help.’ We taped it to the Ministry of Children and Families’ door. This was our first experience of social justice work.”

Rick Kutzner, a youth outreach worker in Nelson, says much of his caseload involves young people aging out of care. But he says attitudes toward them tend to be more empathic than toward older homeless people “because it is like they don’t have a choice. There will be curiosity about what happened to them, and where are their parents.”

But there is still a stigma, he says, when it comes to youth finding housing.

“I get it,” Kutzner says. “If I am a homeowner, I am going to want the young professional tenant,” or, as McParland puts it, “that shiny university student.”

“I know what I was like at that age,” Kutzner says. “I would not want to rent to me.”

McParland said youth homelessness does not look like adult homelessness. It’s less visible.

“It’s not people on the streets pushing shopping carts. You may be walking beside a homeless young person and have no idea that last evening they had no place to stay.”

She said there are many forms of youth homelessness, ranging from permanent homelessness with kids sleeping in parkades and along the river banks, to episodic homelessness where kids move in and out of a home, to “survival rape” in which predators take young girls in but at a cost.

Youth do not do well in adult homeless shelters, McParland said, because they can be victimized there. She recalls seeing “a number of young homeless people hanging out with older men, and there was a young person who had just aged out of care who connected with an older person who had been on the streets for years and they were shooting up heroin.

“So I gathered a group of people in an abandoned building. We had no chairs, sitting on the floor, seven people, I would harass them into coming, and we [eventually] would have 40 people at a meeting.”

She eventually invited some government managers and politicians.

“I knew that day when people came in with suits that something incredible was about to happen.”

Since then, A Way Home Kamloops has done some innovative things, including creating a youth homelessness action plan that led to the Kamloops Housing Wrap Force. The centralized housing and support intake system now includes 16 organizations and government departments that use the same intake and consent forms so youth don’t have to share their information multiple times.

They have created a continuum of youth housing options including supportive housing, some of it specific to young mothers and Indigenous youth. Through partnerships with businesses and landlords, the group also provides rental subsidies.

As a registered non-profit, the organization takes out leases on behalf of tenants. Thompson Rivers University provides five bursaries a year to the housing program’s participants.

Kamloops city councillor Tina Lange, who successfully nominated McParland for the 2017 YMCA-YWCA Peace Medal, wrote that McParland “has a paid position to coordinate wrap-around services for all troubled youth, but what she has done goes miles beyond what she is paid to do. With lived experience she has turned the concept of homeless youth on its head… She has inspired landlords, business owners, Thompson Rivers University (and governments) to open their eyes to the financial and social cost of ignoring homeless youth. Everyone who meets her wants to help.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chantal Schwark, left with Gerri Gill and Elle Schwark, 11 months old in the pumpkin patch at Arrowvale Farm. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Alberni Valley News)
Final day for Arrowvale pumpkin patch is Oct. 25

Drive down to the patch and pick your own pumpkin

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Most Read