Michele Anderson is team leader at Covenant House Toronto, which has been working with victims of sexual assault for more than 30 years.
What’s complicated for youth who are homeless is that they are not connected with families anymore. They have lost their peer group, so they are very isolated. And when the sexual assault happens, the abuser often threatens them, telling them they are not to tell anybody—that they will come and find them and that there will be repercussions. I just had a situation this morning where the abuser threatened to shoot her if she said anything. Even if you’re not homeless, there’s so much stigma about being sexually assaulted; there’s a lot of shame. It can end up being this big, dark secret.
For those who have been sexually assaulted who do go to the police and charges are laid, they don’t have a network that’s going to be there for them in court. No one’s holding their hand and being a positive reinforcement. That has not changed at all over the 30 years. And it’s really important for homeless youth who are disclosing a sexual assault to have a support worker there to support them. It’s a very intimidating and frightening process to go through. The biggest challenges with these cases is that’s it’s always he-said, she-said. It’s very difficult, as a victim of sexual assault, to be questioned about the validity of your story.
Just this summer, a homeless girl who was sexually assaulted—she was 17 and he was 22—testified and went before the court, and he was found not guilty. That was difficult, but another way to look at it, and how I try to help the victims, is to tell them that they did tell their story. And even though he was found not guilty, he did have to answer for what he did. He did have to show up at court.
We need to stop blaming the victim. If you’re homeless, sleeping rough on the park bench; if you’re 16 or 17 and not sure what your options are, society often casts judgment. “What can she expect? She left herself wide open to be assaulted or abused,” people will say. I would love to see the public educated; no one deserves to be sexually assaulted or abused. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.
— As told to Rachel Browne. This interview has been condensed and edited.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.