Ingredients of a Re-entry programme
teaching young people how to survive in the city
by RAY NORRIS
Ray Norris was head of a Brown-dale therapeutic family for two years; for the next year and a half he worked with families who had children in Browndale. Now he is in charge of the Browndale Reentry programme for adolescents in Toronto.
Browndale's Re-entry programme is designed to bridge the gap between the protected environment of the treatment centre, or the family, and the sometimes harsh realities of living on one's own in the city. We take boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 19 and I see the programme as a final step in the treatment process for some children and as an alternative for the older adolescent who is unable to continue living at home for whatever reason, but is not yet able to handle living on his own.
I think not knowing whether or not they can fend for themselves and survive is one of the major sources of anxiety among adolescents. The adolescent is at an age when he knows that soon he will be out in the world on his own and his big worry is: "Will I be able to make it?" He can learn how in Browndale's Re-entry programme with the help of some young, knowledgeable staff.
We started the programme in January of this year and at the present time we have two adjoining houses with capacity for 24 adolescents. These houses provide a semi-independent living environment not unlike a college rooming house. Each person has his own room with cooking facilities. Kids who are working pay rent at a rate commensurate with the going rate in the neighbourhood. Kids who are going to school get a living allowance of $20 a week which has to cover food, car fares, cigarettes and other day-to-day expenses. They also get a clothing allowance of $20 a month.
The kids have available to them staff who can give them practical advice on how to manage their money sensibly. From the staff they can learn how to plan cheap but nutritious meals, where they can buy 50 cents worth of meat to make a stew, where they can buy cheap clothes, dodges that help them stretch their dollars. Some kids learn faster than others, but we have a stand-by "soup kitchen" where hungry kids who've run out of money can get one basic, subsistence meal a day.
Everyone living in a Re-entry house has to be holding down a job, actively looking for one, or involved in some kind of school or training programme. The Re-entry house is not a treatment house; and it's not a place for people to sit around all day, feeling sorry for themselves and getting depressed. No drugs are allowed, no sexual activity is tolerated in the house, no one under 18 can drink any alcoholic beverage (in accordance with the Ontario law) and everyone is expected to steer clear of any other illegal activities. These limits are made clear to the children and they know that violations will result in dismissal from the programme.
The children are expected to assume responsibility for the rules and they are also expected to assume responsibility for the care and the maintenance of the house.
Any broken or misplaced items must be replaced or paid for by those responsible.
We try to keep our programme flexible enough to meet the needs of each individual child within the framework of the programme. For some, the Re-entry programme provides a place to live while they get on their feet, find a steady job and somewhere permanent to live. Others need to live in a Re-entry house for a longer period of time while they struggle a little more to come to terms with life. These are the kids who need more of a push to get themselves mobilized around school- or work and some of them may be in and out of a succession of jobs before they are able to settle into something permanently. For other children, the Re-entry programme provides stability and financial support which enables them to finish their schooling.
Provides energizing force
A Re-entry house is a good place for kids to live while they are trying out alternatives. It isn't a substitute family, but it is a community. And being a member of a community can provide the energizing force that many kids need to get them moving in positive directions. Isolation — and the depression that comes with it — will be one problem these kids won't have to contend with.
The houses we have so far are located in east-central Toronto, an area of the city that fits in with the objectives of the programme. It's a paradise for scroungers. There are all kinds of places in this area where one can get a free meal, a pair of pants for 35 cents (though not the latest style) and all the other necessities of life cheap. The only hassle to be faced is competition from all the other scroungers in the area. But if a teenager can make it in this area of town, he knows he can make it anywhere.
We could have purchased houses for our programme in a middle class suburban area of the city like Don Mills, but the way of living in that kind of community is irrelevant to the kids we are trying to help. Streetcars and buses and walking fit their lifestyle more than cars in the garage. And a 16-year-old girl trying to survive on her own is more interested in where she can get a loaf of bread for 15 cents than in the gossip of affluent teenagers hanging around the suburban shopping plazas.
The teenager in Don Mills faces the same kind of pressure towards drinking, taking drugs, or ripping off stores, but the choices are more out in the open in the inner city. Many of the people one meets on the street bear visual evidence of the choices they have made and drugs, booze lose their glamour. Just watching police move a wino out of Allan Gardens is an education in itself.
We have three staff working in the programme at present, including myself. I've had 31/2 years experience at Browndale working with disturbed children in our therapeutic family homes and with their families in the community. My wife, who is working for us full time, has also had experience working as a Browndale therapeutic parenting staff. Our third full time staff person, Paul Taylor, lives in the house. He has several years' experience working with children and adolescents in arts and crafts programmes at camp and in drop-in centres. We also have one part-time staff. Donna Brown, married with a couple of young children, who has several years' experience working with emotionally disturbed children in a residential setting.
Striving for independence
From our experience so far, I think that many so-called "un-treatable" adolescents will turn out to be very "treatable" in the Browndale Re-entry programme. I think the traditional group home setting doesn't work for some adolescents because it fosters independence at a time when the child is striving to achieve independence and become a person in his own right. Moreover, an 18-year-old boy from a poor family finds life pretty unreal in a middle class home where he is provided with three meals a day, with no effort required on his part. He knows that a person can die of starvation or lack of shelter in the area of the city he comes from. He needs to learn how to look after himself so that he will know that he can survive in the jungle that the city can be.
I am hoping that our programme will serve more children than those who live in the houses. Already many friends of the kids who live there drop around in the evening, knowing that they'll find a young, understanding adult to talk to and get advice from without a hassle. Some have stayed over for a night or two while they get their bearings. I think this type of informal community resource for young people is badly needed in our city and I hope that in the future we will be able to expand our services in this area.