Stepping into the shoes of a homeless youth for just one night

Volunteers were given a scenario, sleeping bag, bus pass and a couple of dollars. They spent the night living on the street as part of an event organized by the 360o Kids organization.

It’s cold outside.

You’re waiting for the bus and you can’t feel your legs and your hands. You’re hungry and can’t wait to go home to warm up and have a good meal.

But what if there is no sure home and no certain next meal?

As part of a fundraising and educational effort put on by 360o Kids – a York Region organization offering support programs for families and particularly homeless and at-risk youth – participants were recently asked to spend one night pitted against the conditions a young person on the streets would face.

Among those who took part were volunteers from Metrolinx for the 360o Experience, including Donna Fraser, Jay Kangas and Jessica Langley who work for Transit Safety.

Shelter

The effort was to fill in, first hand, some of the harsh details of finding a place to sleep or a warm meal on a cold night.

The question 360o Kids asks is, you’d care if a six year old were on the streets. Then why not a 16 year old?

Fraser was paired up with Langley. Together – after participants were given certain scenarios, such as staying in a shelter – they had a glimpse at the challenges many homeless youth face.

Jessica and Donna

We asked Fraser to share a diary of her night out in the cold.

 7:15 p.m. − I’m excited and anxious at the same time. I’m wearing three layers bottom to top and I’ve doubled up my coat, hat and gloves. I’m not a cold weather kind of person.

 8:40 p.m. − We have our scenario, our sleeping bag and tarp. We are heading out to catch a bus to the Newmarket Bus terminal. I’m not from York Region so I have no idea which way to go. We follow other participants hoping we are going the right way. The weather isn’t too bad (-8C). The bus is already crowded and I’ve got a knapsack and a sleeping bag. I don’t want to bother people and I don’t want to get in any trouble so I make sure I’m not in anyone’s way.

The bags are starting to get heavy. We make it to the bus terminal and we go to a mobile drop-in clinic to get some information about their services, as per our scenario. Our next destination is Porter Place Men’s Shelter where we hopefully will be able to sleep.

We’ve just missed our bus, so we weigh our options. It would take us over an hour to walk to the shelter or we could take a bus up to Greenlane and walk from there. The bus driver doesn’t recommend walking that stretch of Yonge Street as there are four curvy lanes and it’s dark. I’m starting to miss my vehicle.

We end up bussing it to Greenlane and our support team takes us the rest of the way to the shelter for our own safety. Upon arrival, I reflect back on two things: I’m glad I didn’t have to walk up that hill at night but I am thinking about people who don’t have someone to give them a ride.

The shelter is at full capacity. It is small, old, isolated and needs expansion. There is a family shelter just across from it. It is larger and more hospitable but it’s surprisingly the only one in the Region and there is no daycare. I start wondering how one is to go out and find a job – or keep a job – when there is no access to daycare on site. The shelter is also at full capacity and moreover, it only accommodates families.

 11:30 p.m. − We are back at Yonge and Greenlane bus stop. It’s gotten colder outside (-10C), but luckily, there’s no wind.  Our next stop is Belinda’s Place shelter. We are trying to figure out how to get there. It’s a good 45 minute walk. The other choice is to wait at least a half-hour for the bus. It’s better to keep moving; at least we can keep warm. It’s dark. Sidewalks are clean, so the walk isn’t too bad. No one is around and the city feels harsh and barren.

 12:15 p.m. − We safely arrive. It is nice, new, clean, and airy. If I was homeless, this is where I would want to stay, but we have to keep going as the shelter is also at full capacity. It’s -12C out and breezier than before. We are waiting for the bus. My feet hurt, the bag feels heavy and I’m cold. I don’t know how someone can do that more than one night.

 1:15 a.m. − The bus finally arrives, it’s nearly empty and it’s warm. I’m a little tired but I make sure I don’t fall asleep as I don’t want to miss my stop. I don’t know how long this ride will be so I can’t relax. The one consistent thing about this night is that I’m always on my guard for one reason or another.

 1:30 a.m. − We need to find a place to huddle down for the night. Maybe the Tim Hortons up the street? No luck, it’s closed. There’s always the vestibule at the bank but anyone could come by, it’s dirty, the floor is wet, it’s bright and cold. We keep walking in search of a building lobby or a church where we could stay. No luck.

We decide to go to another Tim Hortons which adds another 25 minute walk to our journey. We are walking through a beautiful neighborhood but the sidewalks are hard to navigate and so forbidding at night. A coyote just crossed our path. We’re glad it didn’t pay any attention to us.

2:22 a.m. − We are in luck, as the 24 hour Tim Hortons located in the hospital, is open. We can finally have access to the same level of comfort we have at home. I can charge my phone and get off my feet and thaw out a bit. We are also able to relax in the hospital waiting area where there are comfortable seats.

I can’t sleep though, I don’t know if security will come around, or anyone else for that matter. People are coming and going, they give me a funny look but no one says anything. I hope we can stay until 5:00 a.m.

 5:13 a.m. – It’s time to head back to the 360o Kids shelter where our adventure will end. I didn’t get any sleep, but we were warm, safe and able to use the washrooms. It is still cold outside (-13C) and there’s a very light breeze.

The city seems to be waking up as there are more cars on the road. I wonder what they think of us walking around with a sleeping bag.

 6:02 a.m. − We did it!  We are back at the shelter. Time to share our experiences. Some of us slept on the street, others slept in the bank’s vestibule or stayed in coffee shops, and a few brave souls slept in the park. All of us now have a greater respect and understanding for those who have to live this hard reality every day.

Langley, Fraser’s travelling buddy, comments on her experience:

“I became what we see every day in our stations. A tired, homeless person, crashed out on a bench, in need of a little warmth and rest. Then – like many others face – I had to get ready for my day in a public washroom so I could clean myself to face another day at work.  This is an everyday reality for people – and we see it day after day. It really makes me think of the importance of kindness. If you are lucky enough to be in a position to help and show kindness, don’t miss that opportunity.”

Sleeping

Participants of the 360o Experience faced the harsh realities of life on the street. They faced challenges such as finding a place to stay, being consistently aware of their surroundings for any potential danger, enduring people’s looks and feeling ashamed and scared to bother anyone.

This was just one night. Imagine the strength, resilience and maturity it takes to face this every single night as a youth. Think about this when you’re comfortably curled up in your blanket tonight.

360o Kids raised over $140,000 thanks to the 360o Experience, surpassing its goal of $125,000.

To learn more about 360o Kids and the various ways to help, visit www.360kids.ca/

 Story by Amandine Viaud, Metrolinx communications coordinator.