New Days Dawning

The good life: Stephenie White started her life on the street as a teen. A young adult now, she is in university, on a pathway out of poverty. Photo by Cooper + O’Hara

Stephenie White takes a sip of her coffee and casually gestures out the window of the downtown cafe. “There’s a parkade over there I used to sleep in,” she says. Now 24, and one of the leading contributors to the Youth Action Project on Poverty, Stephenie leans over the table and cranes her neck. “Let’s see if we can see it.” Sure enough, there it is, as grey and unforgiving today as it was a decade ago.

According to the City of Edmonton, more than 100,000 people in Alberta’s capital live in poverty. One-third of them are children. That’s why this February, the Youth Action Project, organized by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, put forward a series of recommendations to the City, giving youth a chance to provide direct feedback into its long-term strategy to eliminate poverty.

When I started using crystal meth, I didn’t have to worry about where to sleep because I wasn’t tired. – Stephenie White

For a long time, Stephenie was included in those numbers. Today, she’s an ambitious youth advocate and full-time student at MacEwan University. Much of her time is spent in meetings, volunteering or studying. But it wasn’t so long ago that her life looked very different.

From ages 14 to 16, Stephenie lived on the street. After a traumatic incident at her home, Stephenie got on the first bus she saw and vowed to get off as soon as she saw something she recognized. That place turned out to be Churchill Square. In the heart of downtown, Stephenie fell in with a group of kids who taught her the ropes: how to navigate the shelter system, how to get socks and toothbrushes, how to sleep in shifts so that someone was always watching your back. It was a hustle, but she found ways of getting by.

That all changed once she turned to drugs. “When I first started using crystal meth,” Stephenie says, “I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep, because I wasn’t tired anymore, or what I was going to eat, because I wasn’t hungry. All I had to worry about was how I was going to get high.”

Still, things were not easy. To escape the harsh winter weather, sometimes Stephenie would commit a crime, just so she could warm up in jail. She broke into apartment buildings and vehicles. Once, she and some friends stole a car and drove it all the way to Winnipeg before getting caught, arrested and sent back to Alberta.

Then, at 16, Stephenie got pregnant. She had a daughter and, two years later, a son. By this time Stephenie was technically off the street, thanks to multiple sources of support, including Edmonton’s Food Bank, the Bissell Centre, the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, which are all funded by United Way. But she had ongoing issues with both of her children’s fathers.

A blowout came after her son’s dad returned from a four-day binge and immediately began to criticize her. The two of them started fighting and yelling, and the police got called. Children’s Services was soon to follow.

That was the moment everything seemed to go wrong. “I lost my place because I couldn’t afford rent, and then I lost my kids, and my boyfriend went to jail, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’” Stephenie remembers. “I started using again.”

For the next seven months, Stephenie fell back to her old ways of dealing with her problems. Her drug use returned, with a vengeance – this time she was ingesting crystal meth directly, which led to bouts of paranoia and severe memory loss. She started hanging around with gangs while also logging time in multiple jails, this time as an adult offender.

When Stephenie tried to get sober on her own so that she could get accepted into treatment, a chance invitation to get a drink with a friend derailed things once again. That time, Stephenie ended up on a drug and alcohol bender lasting two full days, during which she assaulted someone so badly that they nearly died. She went back to jail – but this time something was different. Staff at the non-profit iHuman Youth Society, who had seen Stephenie’s initial commitment to getting sober, decided to advocate for her to get out of jail and into treatment, where she belonged. It worked. Stephenie promptly completed two treatment programs, back to back.

Now out of treatment, Stephenie had to relearn much of what it takes to live a normal life. That meant re-enrolling in school, reconnecting with her Métis heritage and, most of all, doing volunteer work with some of the organizations that had helped her at her lowest. One of the first places Stephenie turned to was iHuman, where she volunteered with programs for youth and young mothers and where she started to rap, using the alias Qneek, finding an outlet for her creative energy through music. “I never had a way to express myself, so that meant a lot to me,” she says.

Maigan van der Giessen first met Stephenie in 2012, when they volunteered to help build a float for the upcoming K-Days parade. The theme for the float was “Hip Hop Isn’t Dead,” and the two slowly opened up to one another as they constructed a huge skeleton out of cardboard, papier-mâché and stacks of old records. For her part, Maigan, who was then a mentor at iHuman, was struck by Stephenie right away.

“She’s not afraid to call you out on stuff,” Maigan says. “She’s very honest, and really wants the truth. She wants people to do the right thing. Even if she loves and respects you, she will still hold you to that high standard.”

At the same time, Stephenie began to get involved in anti-poverty work through a friend, who had started doing public-speaking events about a recent cross-country bicycle trip he’d taken. The friend asked Stephenie if she wanted to do any public speaking of her own. She did. But she wasn’t sure what she had to talk about. “So I started speaking about my experiences with poverty and addiction.”

One such talk, for example, was at the 2015 Mac & Cheese luncheon, an annual event facilitated by United Way with proceeds going to the Inner City Agencies Foundation. While some audiences were shocked and surprised by her stories, Stephenie was happy to clue them in.

So when van der Giessen started working for the John Humphrey Centre, and was recruiting for the Youth Action Project (YAP) – a youth-led response to, and collaboration with, the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty – Stephenie’s experiences put her at the top of the list. When the YAP visited agencies around the city to learn what kind of services they provided, it turned out Stephenie had made use of every one of them.

“We can talk about poverty, but if we’re not being guided by the people who are impacted by it every day, then we’re really missing the point,” says Maigan. “We really need to make room for those who’ve experienced poverty to be in leadership roles when it comes to finding solutions to it.”

The Youth Action Project’s final recommendations to the city were built around four key concepts: justice, security, freedom and dignity. Each recommendation looks at a specific problem that affects youth living in poverty, and suggests concrete ways of addressing them. “Justice,” for instance, explains how bylaw tickets (for petty crimes like jaywalking or not having valid LRT fare) can quickly snowball into jail time, which places a burden on the criminal justice system and can also lead to a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration for the user. Instead, the report recommends alternative repayment options and more flexible court dates.

Once Stephenie got involved in anti-poverty work, she took to it quickly. After visiting United Way-funded partner Boyle Street Community Services as part of the Youth Action Project, for instance, Stephenie was offered a job there. She continues to do public speaking, and now much of her time is spent in boardrooms and in meetings, trying to find ways to address poverty in Edmonton.

She’s still working with YAP, too, on a new project about dignity, on a related art project, and especially as one of the subjects in a recent documentary that the John Humphrey Centre made about the initiative.

For that project, Stephenie got to interview Mayor Don Iveson. “He seems like he actually cares about poverty, and not just because it’s his job,” she says. And she even organized its premiere, at the Garneau Theatre, in August. And though she relinquished custody of her children and they have been adopted by other families, she sees them regularly.

On top of it all, Stephenie is now a full-time student at MacEwan University. She’s currently working on a bachelor of arts degree, but hopes to transfer into social work. She also makes a point of furthering her education by attending as many conferences and public lectures as she can. Her days are as busy as they’ve ever been, and she’s been sober for more than three years.

Back when she was on the street, Stephenie wanted to be a person with ambition, someone whose life had meaning. Today, she’s doing everything she can to make sure things stay that way, for herself and for others like her.

“People that have never experienced poverty don’t understand the root causes,” she says. “It could be trauma, addictions or simply that somebody’s house burned down. There are much deeper levels to poverty than what people think.”