Drop-in centre offers help and hope to LGBTQ street kids

Newly expanded centre provides a safe space and free support services for some of Edmonton’s most vulnerable youth.


Jadyn Steidl (left), a regular visitor to the C.H.E.W. program in downtown Edmonton, with co-ordinator Corey Wyness. The program, which has been supporting LGBTQ street youth in the city since 2014, celebrated the grand opening of its expanded space earlier this week. (Photo: Geoff McMaster)

Corey Wyness has a singular mission in life-offering hope to vulnerable LGBTQ2+ street kids and young adults who "just keep falling through every crack until they hit rock bottom."

As a project co-ordinator for the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS), Wyness runs a drop-in centre, or "outpost," in downtown Edmonton's Oliver neighbourhood for homeless youth who have nowhere else to turn. They don't feel safe at city shelters, where they're often bullied or beaten up, so they just "float" outside, sleeping wherever they can, whenever they can.

"If you haven't slept for four days, haven't eaten and you're using whatever substance, it's pretty rough," said Wyness, known on the street as "the gay Yoda" for his role as the wise mentor who fixes everything.

To help support this vulnerable population, the Community Health Empowerment & Wellness Project (C.H.E.W) has been offering no-cost counselling, crisis intervention, Indigenous peer support, community outreach sexually transmitted infection testing, as well as clothing and food and help navigating the justice system, since 2014.

The outpost, which celebrated its grand opening earlier this week, began in a tiny office space. But after a story about the project appeared on CBC last fall, Wyness was able to raise enough money to lease the vacant space next door and expand to 1,700 square feet-enough for showers, laundry, a kitchen and common areas to relax and socialize.

Youth often just need to collapse on a couch for a few hours, said Wyness, who explained that the outpost isn't equipped to shelter them overnight. It's mainly a safe place to hang out and recharge with others facing the same hardships, he said.

"If I have a rough day, I come to C.H.E.W. and Corey takes it away," said Jadyn Steidl, a youth who drops in regularly.

"Hugs are OK around here too, and that makes a big difference. The kids are always hugging the staff, and you can see the shine in their eyes because they need it.

"One came up to me yesterday and said, 'This is the only home I've ever had.' That, in itself, is pretty amazing and powerful."

About 65 per cent of those who use the centre are Indigenous, and another five per cent are immigrants, said Wyness. The majority identify as queer or trans male, with a few trans women in the mix.

Some 75 per cent resort to stealing, or selling drugs or their bodies, to survive.

"We do a lot of crisis and suicide intervention," said Wyness, noting that the suicide rate is unusually high among the demographic he serves. "And we do addictions counselling as well."

So far it's made a huge difference in their lives.

"Many aren't stealing anymore, their mental health is way better and they're not using as much. If they are, they're being smarter about it."

The highlight of the week is a family dinner, a common ritual some have never experienced.

"Just last week, it struck me that when you walked in the door, it was like walking into someone's house," said Wyness. "Everyone was laughing, sitting around the table and watching TV. You would have never guessed this was a bunch of street kids."

The next step for C.H.E.W.-if the project can raise enough money and cut through the red tape-is to develop the current space into an overnight shelter. The toughest part of his job, said Wyness, is asking the youth to leave at closing time.

"They're pretty OK with that-they know it's the reality being on the street. But I'm not OK with it. I shouldn't have to send these young people back into the street."

To honour his charges, Wyness keeps a binder of suicide notes left behind by those who have lost hope.

One 20-year-old trans youth wrote, "Corey, you were the one person that never gave up on me and helped me through so much f---ing crap. I am sorry I am doing this to you. Please don't be mad at me or sad. I have no other choice in my head right now and just wanna be free."

"I keep the letters to celebrate their lives," said Wyness. "Some of them are really wonderful. What I take from it is not that these kids passed, but to continue finding that hope."

For now, the outpost accommodates as many as 20 kids between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., six days a week. It is staffed by Wyness, who is on site every day, as well as by a part-time Indigenous liaison worker, a queer counsellor of colour and an outreach worker.

The outpost also partners with nurses from the downtown STI clinic who provide testing for HIV, infectious syphilis and other STIs.

It costs about $150,000 per year to run the project, said Wyness, most of which it has received from Alberta Children's Services.

The U of A's Faculty of Education covers some administration and insurance costs, but for the rest C.H.E.W. relies on crowdfunding and community donations of food, clothing and the hottest commodity-bus tickets.

"I also have a couple of senior ladies who bake us cookies every weekend," said Wyness. "The kids call them the cookie dealers."

Beyond supplying basic needs, Wyness hopes to soon offer educational and career counselling to help the youth return to school when they're ready.

"I have two that actually did move on. We got them housed, helped them get off drugs, and found them money to finish high school and start university.

"One is working with addictions now, using his life experience as the power for that, and he's an amazing young man."

The C.H.E.W. project-first launched by André Grace, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority Studies-is also gathering data for research aiming to find out more about the centre's demographic.

"Now we're looking at hope, seeing if the outpost is providing hope for them," said Wyness.

"It's amazing how we take hope for granted, but it's everywhere. We just have to learn to see it."