As a teenager, Charlotte Smith had a difficult life: living on the streets of Ottawa, suffering from addiction and spending time in jail. Now 32-years-old, she has turned her life around. Through her studies in psychology, she is helping homeless youth by being the person she needed when she was younger.
Smith’s journey has not been easy. She reunited with her biological mother and moved with her to Canada.
“I was born in the UK, I was adopted out by my teen mum at six months old,” says Smith. “When I was 12 she re-adopted me, which is very rare, and brought me to Canada.”
Just two years later, her mother kicked her out of the house, “I wasn’t what my mom thought I would be, I never wanted to come home from school because I didn’t feel like I was wanted at home with my bio-mom and stepdad,” says Smith.
Without any other family ties in Ottawa, Smith entered the foster-care system. She worked with horses on a farm.
Before long, she was living on the street where she remained for three years on her own. Smith saw many friends develop illnesses and die from hepatitis C and HIV that they contracted through sharing needles. Smith went to jail multiples times, for shoplifting and other misdeeds.
While locked up, she managed to get into contact with an old friend from high school that she hadn’t seen since she dropped out years earlier at age 15. They let Smith stay with her until she found her footing again. “I was able to get clean,” says Smith. She found work on a farm with horses, like she had done when she was younger.
During that time, she also worked to get her high school equivalency diploma from independent-learning books she had received during one of her incarcerations.
“I didn’t really work on them that much then because every time I would get released I was just right back on the streets, right back into drugs,” says Smith. “But the last time when I ended up moving in with my friend, for some reason I still had those books and I started working through them.”
In her early 20s, she applied to Everest College-a post-secondary institution with locations mainly in the United States, but also one in Ontario. She graduated with a diploma that gave her the courage to apply to the Carleton University psychology program.
“When I was in my second year of university, a professor approached me after I answered a question about homelessness in class, and she asked me if I wanted to be a research assistant for her,” says Smith.
“She hired me to help recruit participants and interview them. I started contacting my old friends and saying: ‘Hey, I’m interviewing people about homelessness, do you mind if I interview you?’ and it was a really great way for me to reconnect with all these people I’ve been avoiding for years.”
Now, Smith is working on her Master’s degree in psychology at Carleton University. Her research is intended to help prevent homelessness in youth. Although she is unableto help her friends from the past, she can help people experiencing it now.
“From my master’s research and being involved in different projects, I’ve talked to so many homeless young people and even some who are dead now. I introduce myself as somebody who’s had shared experiences with the participant,” explains Smith.
“A bunch of them have stayed in touch with me, and we’ve been able to keep working together on different research projects.”
When COVID-19 struck, Smith found herself pausing her research and jumping into the community to help those in need. She began to do an emergency peer outreach delivery service with a youth she had met through research, where they would check-in on youth who overcame homelessness and found a home.
During the summer, she teamed up with local organizations like Parkdale Foods to supply these youth with fresh produce. As she mentions, it was essential to their summer operations to be able to give back to the youth.
Smith’s community service doesn’t stop here. With a group of research participants and other people Smith met during her research process, she has helped establish the Chicken and Boots bursary for homeless youth at Carleton University.
The bursary honours two young people who have died: Chicken, who Smith had met through research, and Boots, who had been to jail with her whom she knew from jail. The project is now up to over $50,000 in funding.
She has also hosted an online panel in honour of the scholarship to establish physical material support for young people.
Smith and her team also supplied cigarettes and cannabis, from summer to December 2020, as well as laptops and toys to the housed youths with help from the Parkdale Food Centre.
Smith realizes that kind of donation might raise eyebrows.“We were able to get a bunch of donations for cigarettes and are always just being honest and telling people, ‘listen, if you want to send money to me right now I’m going to use it to buy huge boxes of contraband cigarettes to hand out to youth’,” she says.
“People willingly sent the money because they see it as something important. I think that’s really special. It’s not something you see when you’re working with well-established charities that aren’t able to do something as controversial as that. Just because it’s controversial doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to the people who are receiving it.”
Smith has since taken a break for her own well-being and is now focusing on finishing her thesis. She will dive back into her projects soon enough. She hopes that the Chicken and Boots bursary will inspire all post-secondary institutions to acknowledge homelessness and have the proper resources to respond to it.
She envisions herself finishing her Ph.D. and opening up an equestrian wellness facility for youth to seek haven in a way Smith once did, all those years ago.