The Community Health Empowerment and Wellness (CHEW) Project was established in 2014 within the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (iSMSS) at the University of Alberta. Originally, the CHEW Project provided comprehensive sexual health education to LGBTQ2S+ youth and young adults facing barriers in the Edmonton area. However, we soon learned that these youth were in need of much more than just sexual health education as they discussed their struggles in accessing resources and supports surrounding mental health, substance use, survival sex, homelessness, and meeting basic needs (e.g., clean drinking water, food, clothing, bathing). In response, the CHEW Project evolved to provide frontline wraparound services to better support these youth. Currently, the CHEW outreach team consists of one fulltime outreach worker, Corey Wyness. Corey has nearly 30 years experience working with LGBTQ2S+ youth and young adults facing barriers in Canada and the United States. His philosophy revolves around helping those who are struggling find hope in the most unlikely of places. The CHEW team also consists of two part time staff consisting of an Indigenous Peer Support Worker and a Community Mental Health worker from the QTBIPOC community are also part of the team. CHEW also has working relationships with community nurses and professional counsellors/psychologists to help better facilitate sexual and mental health services for youth and young adults. Despite limited funding, CHEW and its partners strive to create a culture of hope for LGBTQ2S+ youth facing barriers in our community to help inspire fierce resilience.
Since its inception, CHEW has operated out of a tiny space that was graciously donated by a member of the community. However, the space is dilapidated and prone to overcrowding since the number of youth and young adults attending the CHEW Project has increased over the years. Unfortunately, overcrowding in the space commonly leads to youth leaving before they receive the services or products they required. As a result, it has become painfully clear that we have outgrown our current space and can no longer provide effective services and intervention to LGBTQ2S+ youth and young adults facing barriers. Many youth and young adults who attend CHEW regularly discuss how great it would be to have a safe space of their own where they could have a shower, do their laundry, or even sleep without the concern of being assaulted or worse. Shelters are not a viable option for this group as physical and sexual assault is commonly experienced. This observation is confirmed by the large number of LGBTQ2S+ youth and young adults who prefer to sleep outdoors in the winter months, regardless of temperature, rather than attending shelters. While the CHEW team does what it can, the current space simply cannot accommodate more than three youth to sleep at any given time. When there are dozens of youth out in cold, there is simply no safe and warm place for them.
Corey, the fulltime Outreach Worker, was able to find a new home for CHEW. Compared to the current location, this new space is massive at 1600 square feet and has an entrance right on Jasper Avenue. No longer will the youth and young adults who access CHEW need to enter through a back alley, instead being visible in a community where they are otherwise overlooked and ignored. Once renovations are completed, these youth will finally have a place to call “home” where they can feel safe, accepted, and warm. Several youth have suggested we call our new space the “OUTpost” and we have embraced their idea. A community kitchen will be created where meals can be accessed that do not require a can opener. Laundry facilities, a shower, arts space, room to relax and chill, and even beds will all be available. Just imagine what a difference having one’s basic needs met will have on things like mental health and survival crime!
Community Support Needed
CHEW has been very fortunate as we have been able to secure most of the materials (appliances and furniture) for the OUTpost. Several community partners have stepped forward and have agreed to assist us with renovations. However, some unanticipated setbacks have seen our funding for rent and operations fall into doubt. Despite our best efforts, we have not given up but we do need your help. Your support will help us guarantee securing the new space and expedite its renovations and subsequent grand opening. An added benefit is that your support will show these youth and young adults that they are cared about and truly part of Edmonton’s LGBTQ2S+ community. Your donation and assistance in circulating this campaign will literally save lives and help LGBTQ2S+ youth and young adults survive, heal, and find hope. Welcome to the CHEW team!