Before last night (March 20th , 2014) I could say that I did not know a lot about youth homelessness. I am not young, and I have never been homeless. However, I was able to participate in the 360 Experience last night. This program was organized by a youth shelter in Richmond Hill, 360 kids, to bring community leaders together to experience a night of homelessness in the shoes of a young person. I was paired up with Markham Fire Chief Bill Snowball and the scenario we were given was that of a young mother with a small child needing to find shelter on that cold March night.
“You are a 21 year old female, with a 3 year old child. The father ran off long ago and you have been struggling to make rent payments, buy baby supplies and keep a steady job. Just recently you got evicted from your basement apartment and now must seek the help of a local family shelter”
The existing Richmond Hill Shelter, run by 360 Kids, closes at 8PM so we would need to find shelter on that cold March night. With $5 in our pocket, and a bus ticket we were off. This is what I now know about youth homelessness
1. There are no shelter beds in Richmond Hill for a homeless young woman with a small child.
- We needed to find our way to the Blue Door Shelter north of Newmarket, in East Gwillimbury, because it was the closest place available to take in a mother with a child. It took 2 buses, a lot of waiting for buses, a 1.5 km walk at 11PM on the unpaved shoulder of an unlit section of Yonge Street, beside speeding traffic, and almost 2 hours to get there. I should also add that we did not actually have a small child with us, but our difficulties would have been significantly heightened if we needed to care for a child while trying to find shelter.
2. The shelters that are available in York Region are often full.
- When we arrived at the Blue Door Family Shelter at 11PM, it was almost full. I understand from speaking to the staff , this was unusual because they are usually completely full. This shelter turns hundreds of homeless people away each and every year because they simply do not have the capacity for the demands of York Region. On a winter day like this, it likely means that there are few alternatives but to sleep outside or hang out in coffee shops. I also understand that “bus napping” is a strategy that homeless youth will use – buy a bus ticket and ride the warm bus for as long as possible until you get kicked off – but at least you can get some sleep.
3. Sleeping on frozen ground in the winter is very difficult and uncomfortable.
- We did not stay at the Blue Door Shelter – we made our way back to Richmond Hill, hung out in a coffee shop, and then decided to get some sleep (which we badly needed by this time – it was 3:30AM). We were given a sleeping bag, and a tarp and slept on the frozen ground. It was below zero that night. If all this was not bad enough it began to snow.
4. Youth Homelessness exists in our community even if we don’t see it.
- Youth homelessness does not look like “people wandering the streets in shabby clothes begging for money”. It is much more invisible than this. It is youth sleeping in abandoned trailers and buildings and under bridges. It is kids sleeping on friends’ couches when they can – it is invisible – but it exists. There are over 3000 youth that are homeless in York Region and many of these kids are in our community. Many of the kids in our community are forced to do what Chief Snowball and I did last night. The difference was that I went home exhausted after it was all over and caught up on my sleep. Homeless youth do not have this luxury.
5. Being a young person should be about making friends, getting a high school education and learning and how to be an adult. It should not be about finding a warm and safe place to sleep at night.
- Whether we like it or not, we have youth that are homeless in our community. It continued to resonate with me throughout my night of homelessness that the everyday necessities that youth should be able to count on like loving parents, a warm and safe place to stay (near their school and friends), and a decent meal are not readily available if you are young and homeless. I said to a friend when I finished this exercise that I was exhausted, and if I was a youth that needed to write a math test that morning I would be pretty much assured of failing it!
I was proud to participate in the 360 Experience. Our group raised over $30,000 for 360 Kids, but most importantly I hope that the public awareness of this issue will be raised. Like many social issues, the solution to youth homelessness is not simple. I have worked with 360 kids in the past and I did have a decent understanding of the issue, but my understanding humbly exists on a much higher plane now. I have a renewed commitment to continue to help our most vulnerable young people wherever and whenever I can.
Link to another blog post about the 360 Experience – https://davidwest-richmondhill.ca/?p=308
Link to 360 Kids Website – https://www.360kids.ca
Sponsor me and help 360 Kids – https://360kids.akaraisin.com/360experience/davidwest
A great Liberal Newspaper Artilce by Kim Zarzour (one of the participants) – https://www.yorkregion.com/news-story/4425495-could-you-last-on-the-streets-for-even-one-night-/
My Twitter Feed from that night @davidwestRH