My night with Ottawa’s homeless youth

4 MIN READ

In the days leading up to Operation Come Home’s 24 Hours of Homelessness event, the cold was my biggest worry.

In late January, nighttime lows were regularly -20, or lower.

The commitment that I and 25 other volunteers had made to OCH was to spend 24 hours outside, alongside some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable young people—who are at risk of experiencing this every night.

The week before

Getting ready that week, I was very aware that January has been a cold month for Ottawa.

I made a list of what I hoped to wear: toques, lots of layers, fleece, long underwear, and a heavy coat. I also listed some things to pack: hand warmers, thermos bottles, some snack food and extra clothes in case I needed them. My wife (wisely) insisted I buy new winter boots.

I knew in advance that I would meet people who were experiencing homelessness, and I worried about how they would view our group. Would we come across as patronizing? Or that we were making light of their experience?

As someone who has dedicated my career to fundraise for the causes close to my heart—that wasn’t at all what I wanted.

In 2017, more than 800 Ottawa youth stayed in emergency shelters.

616 of them forced to use the adult shelter system due to limited availability of youth specific services. These young people deserve better. Many leave their homes due to a crisis in their mental health; others are fleeing unhealthy or abusive home environments. Most have a chance at a great life, if only they are given the support they need.

With these thoughts in mind, I met the organizers and my fellow participants at the corner of Gloucester and Bank Street at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 24. There were around 25 of us, including Eric Bollman, who was the volunteer organizer and who has slept out each year since the event began 16 years ago.

Eric took the time to greet everyone and thank each of us for coming. He made a brief interview with all participants, asking us why we had decided to do this. Some of us, myself included, were taken a little bit off guard.

Up until that moment no one had asked me.

My night on the street

As we expected, the weather got progressively colder after the sun set. Within an hour I lost all the warmth that I picked up indoors, in my clothes and boots.  Within two hours my face was a little numb.

Some of us had an easier time than others. To handle our basic needs, the Royal Oak next door provided a washroom for us, which was hard to leave once you had got adjusted to the indoors. Operation Come Home staff provided dinner to eat outside.

Bank Street stayed surprisingly bright and noisy all night long.  A convoy of dump trucks and snowplows spent the night moving snow out of the downtown core, driving up and down in a near-constant stream of traffic.

During the night we were joined by youth who had been or were currently homeless. Talking with those who knew homelessness first-hand was the most significant, important part of my evening.

Hearing from the youth, I realized our group was pampered.

One young man I spoke with told me that sleeping on the pallets and cardboard provided by OCH was better than laying on metal grates, or stone. Having free, hot food and a restroom nearby was also a big plus—that is not something that he or his friends get easily.

But everyone, including those who had experience with ‘rough sleeping’, became increasingly uncomfortable as the night progressed.

The chill sank down into my bones. Despite boots, socks and foot warmers, I had trouble keeping my feet from freezing. Around 5 a.m., it started to snow, blanketing our group and melting into my collar. I decided to spend the early morning walking up and down Bank Street to get feeling back into my toes and reflect on my experience.

The next day, we met others who were homeless.

One man asked me how he could get a home. I didn’t know how to answer. He said he became homeless as a teenager, and never was able to get off the streets.

He left soon after, and I remember noticing only that he must be cold—dressed only in a bomber jacket and running shoes, without a hat or gloves.

By mid-afternoon, our group disbanded to go our separate ways. Unlike those who experience homelessness on a daily basis, I went back to a comfortable house, and a shower, and a group of friends eager to welcome me back.

I am more grateful for these things now, than I was before.  And I am convinced more than ever that we have to do more to help Ottawa’s homeless young people. I am grateful to the staff at Operation Come Home, and recommend that anyone interested join them next year. It’s a great cause and an enriching experience to undertake.

I’m also proud to work for an organization that supports Operation Come Home, and many other vital local organizations that are fighting to end youth homelessness in Ottawa.

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