From foster homes to fostering hope

A photo of Dez at Woods Homes.

Dez grew up in the foster care system. Some days, she was only given a single meal. Showers and hairbrushes were considered a luxury by her foster parents, and wearing the same clothes to school for a week wasn’t out of the ordinary. One year, she moved between different foster care homes 34 times.

In 2013, at the age of 17, Dez became homeless. She tried going to shelters but got turned away because she wasn’t 18 yet. She experienced abuse and violence on the streets, and often slept under bridges to stay safe. Her self-confidence plummeted.

“I thought to myself, ‘Ok, this is my life now,’” she says. “I got good at being homeless. But then I met people who had no drive to get out of homelessness and that scared me.”

When Dez first stumbled upon the Wood’s Homes EXIT Youth Hub, a United Way-supported facility that helps homeless and at-risk youth, she resisted going in. Then she noticed a crowd of youth entering the building, so she decided to follow them.

What she found inside changed her life forever.

“I found out about all the programs they offered, and I got really excited because I didn’t know these programs existed,” she says.

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I thought homelessness was my life, and now all of a sudden I had this place to go to, a place where I felt safe.

Soon after her first visit, Dez started counseling, and joined a housing program where she learned valuable life skills, including everything from how to change a lightbulb to how to find an apartment and do her taxes. After graduating from the program, she decided to sign up for the rest of the programs offered by the Hub.

“I decided I was going to do all of them because I wanted to be a better person,” she says.

First, she told her counselors she wanted to go back to school to get her high school diploma. Then, she signed up and eventually graduated from the Independent Living program at the age of 22, three years ahead of her peers. She also learned how to work in an industrial kitchen, which helped her find a job at a downtown restaurant, where she’s been working for the last three years.

But for Dez, that was only the beginning. Her determination and drive caught the eye of the EXIT staff, who offered her a temporary position as a peer support to other homeless youth—a job that didn’t exist before Dez came along.

“All I’ve really ever wanted to do was help people,” she says. “When I was homeless, I memorized the addresses and phone numbers of all the youth support programs in Calgary. So, every time I would find a homeless youth on the street, I would tell them where to go. Then slowly, I started helping everyone I could, bringing them to their appointments, taking them on the bus, and showing them where they need to go.

Dez with one of her mentors.

“When EXIT offered me the position of a peer mentor I was so happy. Now, I could help even more people. It’s scary to be homeless and talk to someone in a suit and tie. It’s really terrifying. But I’m a young Indigenous woman, and I’m not scary. So, I started scouring the streets for homeless youth who needed help.”

Although she’s only in her mid-twenties, Dez has already connected hundreds of homeless youth and adults to programs and services that offered vital supports. And she’s not done. In 2021, she will start her bachelor of child studies, youth worker diploma. After that, she hopes to be able to do what she’s been doing most of her life, but in a professional capacity. She wants to help youth just like her.

“When you grow up with nothing, and then you end up homeless and alone on the streets, it seems like there’s no way out,” she says. “I would see other kids who had parents, and a home, and gifts, and I had nothing and no one. That weighed heavily on me. I thought there’s got to be a reason why I don’t have all these things.

“I would think about that a lot. And then one day, I thought to myself, ‘What if I became the person I needed?’”

And so, she did.

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On any given night, there are approximately 300 youth experiencing homelessness in Calgary.

To support United Way and our agency partners as we help youth like Dez rebuild their lives, please visit calgaryunitedway.org/be-united.

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Elijah BeaverDez