Ex–street kids thrive in doc

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      Metamorphosos:The Lives of Former Street Kids

      At the Surrey Arts Centre theatre at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 5

      Filmmaking is not Jennifer Mervyn's first love. But to the 29-year-old social worker and UBC PhD candidate, film is her key to shaking up Canada's child- and youth-protection bureaucracy: she hopes.

      Mervyn is a former downtown Vancouver street youth determined to find strategies to get others off the streets. Her master's thesis, on just that topic, disappeared into an academic-paper graveyard, she said. So this spring, she became the first UBC PhD student to submit a film, or “videographic ethnography” , as a dissertation.

      “If I was going to put four years into a PhD, I wanted people to engage with my work,”  Mervyn told the Georgia Straight in a coffee shop by English Bay.

      The film, Metamorphosis: The Lives of Former Street Kids, has no distributor or broadcaster. Mervyn created it for a few thousand bucks on credit card, with a volunteer sound editor and cameraman Ben Hoskyn, a BCIT film grad. Too much research has focused on why youth stay on the streets, she said. Her work looks at why some youth successfully launch themselves off the streets.

      Will the film change the world? First, the world needs to see it. The four former street youth profiled in the film, all from the Lower Mainland, plan to attend the gala.

      There's Summer, who bounced between 15 foster homes and five group homes. Starting at 12 years old, she became trapped in a cycle of drugs and prostitution. She's now a social-services student at UBC. Then there's Fawn, whose young mom kicked her out at age 11. She spent her teen years literally sleeping in garbage. Now she's a nursing student who buys “Costco-sized everything”  because she remembers being hungry.

      Chelsea grew up a lonely only child but found an accepting community with crystal-meth users. At 19, she was living in a “crappy trailer park in Maple Ridge”  with a man she didn't want to be with, and her mom stopped visiting her because she couldn't stand seeing her daughter living such a lifestyle. Chelsea is now an addictions counsellor and a musician.

      And there's Christin. Her mom, who often left her three children alone in a house with no food, died of a heroin overdose at 27. As a teen, Christin begged jail staff to keep her there, but she was released to the street over and over again. She is now studying to graduate high school and raising her toddler-aged son.

      “Every time I sit with a young person, I remember what an honour it is to hear their story, and how much trust they have,”  Mervyn said. “These are awesome kids who show amazing resilience, and I'm amazed by that daily.” 

      Mervyn's own story began at age 16 when she hit Granville Street, enthralled with the runaway lifestyle. It was a feeling of family, she remembered, with immediate, strong connections to other kids. A swirl of drugs, hair wraps, and booze later, she met a boyfriend. The two decided to clean themselves up. So, at 17, they hitchhiked to Montreal.

      “Food, rent, and tuition are so much cheaper there, so it's a fantastic place to get back on your feet,”  Mervyn said.

      She earned a BA at Concordia, moved back to Vancouver, married her boyfriend (he drives a bus for TransLink), and became a social worker.

      Today she works out of the Surrey Hospital emergency room, triaging youth who have tried to commit suicide, are showing signs of abuse, or are on drugs. Since she started, Mervyn estimated, she has helped 2,000 youth.

      But it's not all roses. She notes that Surrey's only street-youth drop-in centre closed in December, and there are only a couple of shelter beds available to teens in the entire city. In her academic research, Mervyn identified 17 key circumstances needed for youths to get themselves off the street. Affordable, legitimate housing is one. A stable, legitimate job is another. Teens must face their demons, she said, and find a sense of self-worth.

      In an interview in Metamorphosis, Vancouver police Const. Dave Dixon, known for his work in the Downtown Eastside, said the government makes it very difficult for youth to get help. Vancouver East MP Libby Davies echoed those comments in the film too. And Mervyn, who does not appear in the film, can tell story after story about the twisted way local bureaucracy engages with street-involved youth.

      “They've had a lifetime of invalidation, and our system continues to invalidate them over and over again.” 

      At an 1,100-delegate aboriginal research and policy conference in Ottawa earlier this year, Metamorphosis drew rave reviews. One delegate said: “Every health minister should see this film!”  Mervyn hopes they do too.