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'A constant battle': Alberta mom says son is homeless because of lack of care for people with autism

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An Alberta mother is calling on the government to do more to support people with developmental disabilities and complex needs before it's too late.

Cindy, whose last name won't be used for privacy reasons, said her 24-year-old son lives on the street because it's not safe for his family when he lives at home.

Had he been given more support and better options as a child, she said, he might have had a different life.

"I could tell you about all the holes in all the systems, all the cracks, because our son has fallen through all of them," Cindy said.

"Homelessness just never even seemed like a possibility. You don't imagine that we live in a place where that could happen – that someone with this developmental level could wind up on the street.

"It's heartbreaking."

Cindy's adopted son was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder at four and autism spectrum disorder at 14, and she said the problems started in 2008 when her family moved from Manitoba to Alberta.

"His very first school, we sat down before he ever set foot on that property and explained all the supports he'd had at his school in Winnipeg," she said. "Every time we said, 'Well, he needs this,' we got, 'Well, we don't provide that.'

"It was a constant battle with every single school, having him moved every year, having to re-establish roots, get to the bottom of wait lists again for things like speech therapy. Major struggles all along."

'NO SUPPORTS'

With an IQ of less than 70, speech delays and a limited emotional vocabulary, her son's needs were getting harder to understand, Cindy said. He was hospitalized for the first time at 13 after becoming more aggressive.

When he was 14, she said, the family learned her son had been sexually abused.

"We came to find out that there is zero counselling available for people with developmental delays like his, who also suffer that kind of trauma. No counselling, no anything. No supports to help him get through it," she said.

Her son's behavior worsened after the assault and for years he bounced back and forth between psychiatric wards, was kicked out of a group home from throwing a bike through a window and eventually moved back home with help from Family Supports for Children with Disabilities.

There were a few good years, Cindy said, but her son was lonely and was soon sneaking out, drinking and doing drugs.

"Our boy just changed and the aggression came back," she said. "He started sneaking people into our house at night while we were sleeping. It became quite dangerous.

"I think it probably all came to a head the night we had someone who wouldn't leave, and he was intoxicated and he used the bear spray on us. And so then it was back to hospitals."

Now 24, he has been homeless for years. Psychiatric units won't take him, Cindy said, and group homes won't either.

He has approved funding from the Persons with Developmental Disabilities program, but Cindy said it's too hard to find staff to hire.

"We can no longer have a family-managed contract with them because of his aggression, because the liability would be too high for us if staff got hurt," she said.

"Unfortunately, lockdown is where he's fallen to. Had his needs been met all along, I don't think he would have needed that. But that's where we're at now."

EARLY INTERVENTION

Another mother recently spoke with CTV News Edmonton about her son with autism, who is facing homelessness due to his sometimes violent behavior – a situation Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate, Terri Pelton, said is not uncommon with agressive kids.

"You need specially trained staff, you need accommodation, like housing that meets their needs," Pelton said.

"If they're trying to keep that young person at home with their family, which of course is ideal, then they also need to have 24-hour staffing frequently, especially with these really aggressive young people who just can't regulate."

Pelton said in a report released in September, a study of 15 youth who died showed eight had complex needs that weren't being managed by the system.

"So these young people were often left without stable housing for a period of time," Pelton said.

"Any adult knows that if your basic needs aren't being met, that you have a hard time getting through the day."

The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate is currently working on a special report, and has already made recommendations to the provincial government to create a co-ordinated action plan to improve services.

"It needs to be done sooner rather than later," Pelton said. "We heard about a number of initiatives that are underway, but they're going to take some time to get going.

"We need something now, not later."

Marie Renaud, NDP critic of community and social services, said there are several issues preventing families from accessing help, including low wages and poor staff retention, insufficient funding and a "health and safety approach" that only approves services for people in crisis.

"If, for whatever reason, they're not deemed to be high-need, very complex, imminent safety risk, they're not going to get support," Renaud said.

"And unfortunately, we've heard this through this office far too often. And not just adults, this is happening with children as well.

"The (government has) nickel and dimed the sector to death and created a lot of problems. But their lack of input of resources in the last three years has resulted in what you're seeing today, and you're seeing families at risk, people at risk, people are homeless."

Cindy said she's grateful for all the people along the way that have helped her family, but there just weren't enough of them with knowledge on how to support someone with her son's needs.

"Don't kid yourself. This is not glorified babysitting. This requires skill and compassion and knowledge and commitment," Cindy said. "Physical spaces can be found, they can be made, but if you don't have the staff, you can't take the people."

For now, Cindy sees her son every day for a meal and to give him a daily allowance of cash. While she hopes he'll stay at a shelter for the night, she can't be sure.

"One of the things I think we messed up on, was in closing down all the institutions in 2013," Cindy said. "There are always going to be people in the same kind of boat where my son is now, dealing with developmental and mental health and addictions that have no other place to go.

"And we took away that place of last resort, that safe landing pad, and we've left them on the streets. So yeah, I think we messed up there. I really do."

Jeremy Nixon, Alberta's minister of seniors, community and social services, denied a request for an interview. 

A spokesperson for Alberta's ministry of seniors, community and social services said they've recently increased funding for vulnerable residents, including children with disabilities, by $60 million.

"We will continue to work closely with our counterparts in Alberta's children's services to ensure that unique needs are met," press secretary Hunter Baril wrote in a statement. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nav Sangha 

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