By Michelle McCafferty
What do most people think of when they hear the word “homelessness”? I imagine they envision down-and-out individuals who have had no end of bad luck. Or, maybe they think of people who have fallen victim to their own demons of addiction and are at “rock bottom.” But, what sorts of things come to mind when thinking about homeless youth? The young adults who appear to be fit and able, living in a city seemingly brimming with job opportunities, if they really wanted one. It pains me to admit that I once believed most homeless youth were out on the street by choice or because someone refused to put up with their mischief any longer. Older and wiser, I had shed some of those misconceptions. True insight, however, came from hearing from those who have been there and walking a few paces in their shoes.
On May 24, 2019, Covenant House hosted their 3rd annual Sleep Out—Women’s Edition, raising $334,000. Canada’s largest homeless youth agency, Covenant House raises 80% of its $31 million budget from private donors. The event name is meant to be taken literally. Participants bring a sleeping bag, grab a piece of cardboard and pull up a piece of sidewalk for the night. Well, not exactly, but mostly. Covenant House did a fantastic job of creating a safe, fenced-in area in the middle of downtown Toronto to house the 78 women participating in the event. There was a security guard nearby, bathroom facilities and safety in numbers. Our night of “homelessness” was materially different from the brutal reality of the actual experience. Yet, the night was enough to provide insight, perspective and a long-lasting impression of what it must be like for those out there on a longer-term basis.
Any myth or misconception that someone—especially a youth—would choose to be out there was shattered after touring the shelter and doing the Sleep Out. The shelter and its programs are nothing short of amazing. While it is also a crisis shelter, its primary mandate is to take youth in and develop a plan for them—a path toward independence. This plan is the “covenant” that is undertaken by both the youth and the shelter to guide youth to a life of independence and purpose. Covenant House truly gives homeless youth a hand up and not a hand out.
Covenant House hosts several different Sleep Outs in Vancouver and Toronto. I encourage anyone who would be interested to pull up a piece of cardboard and give it a try. There is no better cause to give up a good night’s sleep for!