Imagine yourself as a teenager or young adult, alone in a big city with no place to stay. You’re running away from abuse at home, or recently ‘aged out’ of foster care (meaning you are no longer anyone’s responsibility), or lost your job and missed rent. For whatever reason, family support is not an option. You walk around the city during the day with the clothes on your back and maybe a few more in a bag. As evening approaches, you start looking for a place to spend the night. Then it begins to rain.
The options you’d previously considered are no longer possible. Getting wet in the cold is dangerous. Stairwells become a viable alternative. But you’re scared – they seem so isolated. You have a little bit of money in your pocket and decide to buy a transit pass so you can ride the trains and buses all night instead, at least that will keep you dry. But you worry about tomorrow. What if it rains again? As the subway rocks you to sleep, you clutch tightly to your belongings.
In the morning you dig through your pockets and find enough money for two meals. As you calculate the options, a stranger approaches you with a request that makes you uncomfortable. You resist, but can’t get it out of your mind. Trading sex for food or shelter might not be so bad, if you really get desperate. But not today. Today you still have enough to get by.
You meet someone who tells you about a place you can go for help. “Like a shelter?” you ask. That doesn’t interest you, you’d rather try to make it on your own. After a couple more nights on the street, you get desperate enough to check it out.
You walk through the doors and the people seem kind. You have your guard up but instead of demanding to know your life story, they ask you what you need. The previous day someone on the street said you smelled bad and you were embarrassed, so you ask if you can have a shower.
And slowly, as you build relationships in this place, your life begins to change. You actually want to tell them your story, but only because they care to hear it. There are rules, which you find annoying at first, but soon settle into a rhythm that feels surprisingly good. For the first time in your life, someone wants to help you make a plan and gives you tools to start taking steps toward it. In light of the love you feel in this place, the thought that you even considered trading sex for a shelter begins to feel foreign, absurd.
This place is called Covenant House, and it is so much more than a youth shelter. It provides wrap-around services for homeless youth aged 16 to 24 – meaning that they take a holistic approach to the wellbeing, safety, and livelihoods of those who walk through their doors. Convenant House operates in multiple countries, but the Toronto location alone serves about 3,000 youth per year.
Last week I took part in Sleep Out, a fundraiser for Covenant House. Along with a bunch of business leaders and young professionals, I slept on the streets of Toronto so that – as the tagline for the event highlights – “homeless youth don’t have to.” We were each equipped with a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag, and experienced just a small piece of what homeless youth have to deal with on a regular basis.
I drove to Toronto in the rain and turned on the radio. Rainfall warning and risk of thunderstorms for the GTA overnight, the weather report stated. I had dressed in layers but hadn’t even considered the possibility of rain. I’d need a cover of some kind. I was reassured by the fact that I’d be with many others, that I didn’t have to figure it out on my own. Loneliness is often the reality of homelessness, I realized.
Upon arrival, I was seated at a table with other participants, a couple Covenant House staff, and an alumni who had gone through the program. The meal was prepared by the youth in the Covenant House culinary arts training program, which is led by a professional chef instructor who trains young people for entry-level jobs in the hospitality industry through hands-on experience. I was seriously impressed and definitely over-ate.
Through the course of the night, the staff and alumni spoke and gave us a tour of the building.
Here are a few things I learned about homelessness:
- 30% of homeless youth trade sex for food or shelter
- 70% of homeless youth leave home because of an abusive situation
- 50% of homeless youth come from upper and middle class homes
- 40% of homeless youth have come from foster care
- 2/3 of the youth at Covenant House are male, 1/3 are female – this, they think is because girls tend to be more resourceful in asking friends for a place to stay (sadly, girls are also more often lured into the sex industry, before they find their way to a safe place like Covenant House)
Here are some things I learned about Covenant House Toronto:
- Covenant House serves 3,000 youth a year, with a budget of $22 million (80% of which comes from private donors)
- They have an in-house employment centre, where they help youth work on resumes and bring in people to do mock interviews – 420 youth found employment in 2014
- They have an in-house high school where youth can finish up a credit or two, so they can graduate
- The culinary arts training program has a 70% success rate for finding employment afterwards
- They have an in-house clinic and lab, which got 5,400 visits in 2014 (reducing the number of emergency room visits)
- Every youth in the crisis centre is partnered up with a mentor/case worker, who helps them create an action plan
I was grateful the temperature had warmed up a bit outside, but as I set down my sleeping bag and cardboard, I heard the first rumble of thunder. The rain started to come down in sheets, with parts of the tarp that covered us sagging and groaning. Streams began to form under us, and people shimmied toward the dry patches as best they could in the dim light.
I ended up sleeping beside Cherrine, a lawyer who is providing pro bono legal representation and advice to victims of human trafficking through a collaboration between Baker & McKenzie and Covenant House.
As I tried to get to sleep, so many questions whirled through my head. Where could a homeless person go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? How do they keep their belonging safe? Ours were secure in a room inside, but people on the street did not have that option. Do they have a knack for dealing with the back ache I was feeling, an inevitable side effect of lying on concrete? How does a homeless girl get feminine hygiene products? How does she fall asleep knowing she could be attacked? I was in a big group, with little worry about security, but being alone on the street would be a whole other experience.
Early in the morning at around 5AM, we all started to get up. Some wrung out their sleeping bags, but Cherrine and I were surprisingly dry. The girl on my right was not. Most of us were headed to work, knowing we could sleep in the comfort of our own homes that night. For a homeless person it would simply mark the beginning of another cold day on the street. And for a homeless youth it could mark the beginning of their life in the sex industry.
For this reason, I am thrilled that in 2016, Covenant House will be launching a transitional housing program specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking. After seeing how comprehensive and effective the youth shelter was, the thought of a program specifically for sex trafficking victims was an exciting prospect.
Katharine Blake, who coordinates Covenant House initiatives on human trafficking, filled me in on what the program will look like. It involves 5 levels – prevention, crisis intervention, stabilization, transition, and independence. Beds for trafficking victims are critical, she said, because often police have no where to bring a victim once they’ve been found.
I will be writing up an in-depth post about the Covenant House transitional housing program for trafficking victims closer to its launch in 2016, but wanted to use Sleep Out as an opportunity to highlight the plight of homeless youth, mention the connection between homelessness and sexual exploitation, and introduce you to an organization that is doing incredible things to prevent vulnerable people from falling through the cracks.
A huge piece of fighting sex trafficking is doing the hard work of reducing vulnerability, and that means we should care about issues like homelessness. As Kevin Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International, said during his speech on Thursday night, “someone loved us into being here.” Let’s use our privilege, position, and compassion to lift someone else up.
For those of you who helped me reach my goal of $2,000, thank you for your support! As promised, I will be matching the last few donations that came in, so that will bring my total amount raised to $2,300!
Please consider spending a night on the street in the next sleep out. I promise you it’s worth it, even if it rains.