It was a long, cold, and sleepless night for the half a dozen students and staff from Elmira District Secondary School, one which they say is only ‘a taste’ of what they imagine winter must feel like for the 40,000 or so people living homeless in Canada.
The evening of Mar. 5 found five students from the Youth in Action group huddled together for warmth outside of Elmira Pentecostal Assembly, kicking off their night spent outdoors to raise awareness about youth homelessness.
The goal of the project was to make students, the school and the surrounding community aware of an issue that so many people don’t fully understand. Mikayla Stroeder, one of the participating students, said she, like many, didn’t even have an idea what the experience might be like.
“We don’t really know how hard a struggle it is for people who are homeless.”
The group decided to make their experience as true to life as possible, bringing with them only cardboard to sleep on and tarp for keeping dry, as well as pledging to leave all electronics behind them for the night – no cell phones or iPods. Even the flashlight they carried was hand-powered rather than battery operated.
“I think most people are pretty addicted to their technology these days, so even just going without that for a night might be tough,” said participating teacher and student advisor David VandenBerg.
When asked about what they might do if given the opportunity to tackle the problems of homelessness, the students offered a variety of ideas – from the creation of jobs, to increasing the amount of affordable housing, and providing more places for people to stay or simply have a meal if they need to.
“But it’s not just about creating jobs and then leaving,” explained participant Kurtis Rempel, rather “continually checking in with people to make sure that their job is going well, that they’re able to afford their housing payments; that they are getting back on their feet.”
The EDSS Youth in Action group, which is affiliated with the charity Free the Children, has been running for two years now. Its focus is on raising awareness and educating members on current issues locally and around the world. Students meet on a weekly basis to fundraise and discuss these issues. Past events have included buying Christmas presents for families in need and attending leadership conferences.
In addition to the night spent outside, students collected non-perishable food items which will be given to Ray of Hope in Kitchener, an organization that supports troubled and disadvantaged youth in the community.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the students were able to come in out of the cold of the previous night’s activities, a fact that was not lost on participant Madeline Charnuski.
“We all got to go home at the end of the night and take hot showers and warm up,” she explained. “We were also wearing winter clothing and hats and mitts, things that people who are actually homeless might not have access to.”
Regardless of how true to life their experiment turned out to be, Charnuski said the students will have at least a little bit more understanding of the challenges associated with poverty in Canada.
“If I visit Waterloo or Kitchener or Toronto and I see someone who is homeless, I am going to remember this, and I know that this is just a little bit of what they might be going through.”
“Hopefully, this event will encourage students to view the homeless as more than just statistics,” said VandenBerg.