The nine youth who have spent the last few nights in downtown St. John’s huddled together in sleeping bags to stay warm are trying to understand what it is like to truly be homeless.
Sleep Out 120 is now in its third year. Over a five-day period, from April 23-28, participants were to spend 120 hours on the streets.
Blair Trainor is the event’s founder. He is now studying pre-social work at Memorial University.
“I was working at Emmanuel House (in St. John’s), and people would call in and say, ‘Hey, I have no shelter to go to,’ and I would be frustrated because I wouldn’t know what to tell them.”
The experience made him feel somewhat ignorant of homelessness issues in St. John’s. To fix that, he developed Sleep Out 120. Participants initially collected funds for Choices For Youth, but this year it will also benefit the Naomi Centre emergency shelter and Waypoints.
“We need to educate the general public on this issue, because if we’re not educated and we’re trying to get educated, I can only imagine how the general public may feel towards this issue.”
Their belongings are limited — a sleeping bag, pillow, toothbrush, soap, journal, pen, water bottle and one change of clothes. Food comes through donations.
“To be able to experience it, there has to be a level of integrity. … In order to experience it, you need to have a limited item list, because the people that go on the streets, they don’t have the luxury to bring their cellphone,” Trainor said.
Three of the participants are social work students, while the remaining six work in child and youth care.
Ashley Gosse, a third-year social work student at MUN, is participating in the full five-day experience for the first time. Last year, she did a 24-hour shift.
“It’s definitely a lot more emotional,” said Gosse, who is also the Sleep Out 120 campaign co-ordinator. “You become very accustomed with the life of the individuals who are living on the streets, so we have a lot of conversations with people who are living on the streets.”
Sleep is hard to come by, according to Gosse, who estimates she managed to catch six hours of shut eye over the first four days. Trainor said the group would also have appreciated better weather conditions.
The physical well-being of participants takes a hit early on, said Trainor, in part because eating habits change. People often donate donuts or foods loaded with carbohydrates and fat. Nutritious items are scarce for people on the streets, he said.
Gosse said the reasons young people become homeless vary.
“Every individual is unique, and every story is unique. Many youth who find themselves on the street come from families and homes that have high levels of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, and they’re dealing with substance abuse issues and mental health issues. They’re marginalized within society in so many different ways.”
Overnight Wednesday, Sleep Out 120 was joined by Len Simms, chairman and CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. He learned about the event while chatting with Trainor last year at the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association’s national congress in Saskatchewan. This year’s national congress is scheduled to take place next week in St. John’s.
“He told me what it was, and at that time I said I should support you on that next year, and, of course, he’s never let me forget it,” said Simms. “You sleep in a team and group for body heat and security. It was a pretty good experience. I had a chance to chat with all the young people about various housing issues.”
Those conversations continued until 2 a.m. Trainor was impressed with Simms’ commitment in joining them for a night.
“We’re the future leaders of this community, and it was really nice to get his leadership skills, and his determination and will to come out and sleep with us was truly amazing,” said Trainor. “Len Simms is an amazing individual.”
Gosse said more needs to be done for affordable housing in Newfoundland and Labrador, given people are being turned away from shelters.
“We need to take a preventative step in affordable housing.”