Benjamin Williamson is a 17-year-old honours student.
He has Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair.
He’s also homeless and his plight paints a stark picture of what it means to be homeless when you are living with a disability.
For nine long months, the Richmond Hill teen has been desperately searching for a way out of a family home life he describes as “unhealthy and toxic”.
“The majority of homeless shelters I contacted throughout the GTA were not accessible physically, and wouldn’t allow for me to have my personal support worker because of the confidentiality of other residents”.
Williamson finally landed a spot at 360Kids emergency shelter in Richmond Hill last week, after staying up late for months to make what he calls his “midnight phone calls.”
“They start a new wait list every day at midnight. As soon as a bed becomes available they look at the top of the list, so if you call at midnight you hope that you are one of the first people on that list.”
360kids has just 14 emergency beds, and while the building is wheelchair accessible, it is not a long term solution for Benjamin because there’s a four month cap on how long any teen can stay.
“Ben can’t stay here forever,” said Bonnie Harkness, executive director of 360 Kids. “This is a temporary solution to help people move on.”
But moving on will be a challenge for Ben. He estimates his odds of ever finding an accessible place to live at “one-in-a-million.” Benjamin says the March of Dimes apartment complex has a wait list of 10-15 years. He’s been told the wait for accessible subsidized housing in York Region is 15-35 years. But Harkness says teens from her facility rarely ever make it to the top of the list.
“I know our young people rarely get called on that list.”
Harkness added that young single men are often pushed to the bottom of the list because of the more pressing needs of seniors and families with children.
Benjamin is no ordinary teen. Born with Cerebral Palsy, he has extremely limited use of his legs and cannot write with his hands. But he says “my mind is as sharp as anybody else’s.”
With that sharp mind, he has become an activist by necessity. His poignant letters to Ontario’s Housing Minister were so impressive that he has landed a co-op job at the minister’s constituency office. Ben has also been appointed to the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, advising the Premier on policy that relates to young people.
Despite his connections, Benjamin says his life has been a constant battle, but one where he usually comes out on top. For six months, for example, he fought his high school over how many courses he could take each semester. The school said it could only provide an Educational Assistant, who transcribes two courses per semester for him. “They do this because it’s cheaper for the board,” he said.
Benjamin fought for, and won the right to take three courses.
“I was not going to forsake my education because of a policy decision that needs to be changed.”
Even so, he won’t graduate with his friends this year.
“Unfortunately, their lack of accommodations, means I won’t graduate until the first semester of my 20th year”.
Benjamin Williamson describes being a homeless teen who lives with a disability as a life with “hundreds of daily discriminations and challenges.” But he isn’t angry. The system, he feels, is designed to push people down, to make their voices marginalized. “By giving up and being frustrated and angry you’ve let them win.”
Instead, the teen says he will continue to fight because “no other child should have to go through what I have gone through. You have to remember, we are just kids.”
With just four months to find his “one in a million” shot at a permanent home, the 17-year-old, isn’t letting go of his bigger dream of becoming a lawyer who advocates on behalf of children in need.
“I’m not going to sit back and do nothing”, he said. “I don’t want young people, or disabled people thinking this is the way they have to live. It’s not. ”