CEOs, presidents, public figures camp out to help homeless youth

Business executives traded their luxury suites for a downtown parkade overnight, bedding down on concrete to become homeless for a night and raise money for Covenant House and homeless youth in Vancouver.

“First and foremost this is a fundraiser, but it actually sends a message to young people that they’re not alone and not forgotten,” said Covenant House executive director Krista Thompson. “At the same time, we need to be sure that the community understands that this is an issue that’s live in Vancouver, that there are young people sleeping outside tonight, that they’re vulnerable and that this is not a Third World problem; this is actually a Vancouver problem.”

Presidents and CEOs were among 17 public figures who shared a covered parking structure on West Pender Street with 10 young men and women overnight. Each were given a cardboard box, a sleeping bag and not much else. No pillows allowed.

Thompson, who participated in the sleep-out, said she was initially reluctant to hold a token event that might miss the gritty reality of life on the street. “But when it’s four in the morning, when you have a bunch of layers and a down coat on and you’re still cold, when the pavement shakes because there’s dump trucks and delivery trucks and sirens – and rats – you do start to get a tiny glimmer of what it might be like,” she said.

High-profile “sleepers” included Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, ex-Bachelorette Jillian Harris, professional snowboarder Justin Pasutto, gossip blogger Elaine Lui and Gastown restaurateur Mark Brand. B.C. Institute of Technology president Don Wright, TD Waterhouse vice-president Timothy Collins and a gaggle of other executives also camped out in the four-degree chill.

“Some of the youth are quite excited to give them some tips, and apparently that involves rolled up newspaper,” said associate director Michelle Clausius, referring to the insulation the paper padding provides.

Wright, who sits on the board of the shelter, said it’s important for privileged Vancouverites to remember that they could have been a major setback or two away from winding up on the street in their youth.

“It’s only a little glimpse of it because tomorrow we get to go to a nice warm bed,” Wright said of the night he will spend outside. “But just for that one evening we have a little insight into what it must be like for young people that really are without a lot of hope in this world.”

Thompson said drug addiction, particularly methamphetamine, plagues Vancouver’s young homeless more than other major North American cities, where poverty and mental health may play bigger roles.

Vancouver participated in the continentwide event for the first time along with 10 other cities including Toronto and New Orleans. Dubbed Sleep Out: Executive Edition, the event was launched in New York last year and has grown to include hundreds of participants across three time zones.

Through the 17 high-profile participants, the Vancouver event raised $125,000, which will be matched by several generous donors. The Vancouver branch of the shelter costs about $110,000 to run for a month.

There are between 500 and 1,000 “street youth” in Vancouver, according to Covenant House, the city’s only shelter specifically for people aged 19 to 23.

With files from Mike Hager


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