By Brenlee Coates (photo of Alex White at RAY, Inc.)
Ever wondered why so many homeless people have pets? “Number one, it’s for companionship,” says Alex White, director of communications and development for Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc. (RaY).
But it also comes down to strategic survival tactics for body heat and safety. Having a sixty-pound dog to sleep with and bear teeth if necessary is a good thing to have in your possession. That’s why the basement “shop” at RaY, along with essential food for youth, is overflowing with cat and dog food.
Survivor-savvy is one of the main skills the youth at RaY come equipped with when they walk in. “We live in Winnipeg. No one decides to live on the streets in Winnipeg,” points out Alex. Surviving the Winnipeg streets is no small feat, so RaY works on “taking those kinds of skills that allow you to survive and transferring them to the mainstream society.”
Surprisingly, it isn’t a huge crop of volunteers tending to the youth at RaY. Instead, the youth are paid to do the jobs that volunteers typically do, like meal prep and meal ordering, which can help them build up work experience and land a job in the outside world. RaY youth also run the forRaY Second Chance Shoppe at 195 Young St. which sells the surplus furniture and houseware donations RaY receives while providing a retail training opportunity.
“The youth that we see have usually been let down by every single system that was supposed to support them,” says Alex. Because of this, the organization makes sure its services are provided by qualified workers. “Our staff are very well-trained,” says Alex of the 21 full-time employees that work at RaY – and they cater directly to the hopes and dreams of each young person.
RaY evolved from an organization that helped return youth on the street to their homes; then learned that “home was often the worst place for them to go,” says Alex.
Moving forward, they asked the youth directly: what do you need? “We took all the information and grew all our services around that,” says Alex.
Now, RaY offers help with addictions, helps find youth appropriate housing armed with eviction prevention, and helps them find and keep stable work. “We try to keep all the services under one roof,” says Alex. “We all measure success differently.”
Last year, RaY helped 145 youth find work. RaY has a street outreach team that goes out four to five times a week to hand out sandwiches, water, mitts, socks and condoms, etc. as well as share information about its programming.
Once youth are in the door, so long as they’re not entirely disrespectful or disruptive, they are accepted as they are.
“There’s this real camaraderie that’s in this building,” says Alex. “We are harm reduction; we will take you as you are.”
With access to 13 units in Manitoba Housing complexes, RaY provides free temporary lodging to some youth as long as they work on any issues with addiction, find work, or attend school.
With the recent Social Planning Council of Winnipeg report that found 29 per cent of Manitoba children were living in poverty in 2012, the second worst rate in all of Canada, and with low-income housing at less than one per cent vacancy in Winnipeg, it’s clear that more needs to be done and organizations like RaY will need continued support.
The trouble for RaY is they get outstretched while they’re helping: “the more customers we have, the less we have to work with,” explains Alex.
At this time of year, RaY requires donations of warm parkas and winter accessories for the youth they assist. “I think last year we gave out around 90 winter coats, and we needed more,” says Alex.
Another thing to keep in mind is who the jackets are for: “We work with youth, so we need stuff that young people wear,” says Alex.
Clothing donations can be dropped off at RaY at 125 Sherbrook St. Call the front desk at 204-783-5617 to arrange a drop-off. For more information on RaY, visit http://www.rayinc.ca.