By Scott Williams, President, Global Knowledge Canada
On November 19, I joined 70 other business and community leaders in Toronto for Sleep Out: Executive Edition. We spent the night outside to raise awareness and funds for Covenant House, the international organization that supports homeless youth.
For us, the night wasn’t all that difficult: The streets were dry, the temperatures hovered around freezing and, most importantly, we knew we’d be safe and warm in our own beds the following night. That reassurance isn’t available to the 10,000 kids who spend time living on Toronto’s streets each year.
On any given night, as many as 2,000 young people will be forced to sleep outside in Toronto. These kids come from all over Canada, North America and elsewhere in the world. Most are on the street through no fault of their own, though some end up there through bad choices they’ve made.
As many as 70 percent of these kids are fleeing some form of abuse or neglect at home, and as many as 30 percent are living with a mental health issue. Many have been exploited sexually or are struggling with addictions. Every one of these kids has a heartbreaking story and every one of these kids deserves a chance for a better future.
Before heading outside for the night, we met some of the staff and clients of Covenant House. The stories we heard were incredibly powerful and moving. These kids are just that – kids. Their stories were upsetting and uplifting at the same time. The things that some of them endured were hard to imagine and, frankly, hard to listen to. And yet, each kid’s story also showed resilience and strength. It showed how much good can happen when a kid knows someone cares.
This year’s Sleep Out united 15 different Covenant House locations across the U.S. and Canada. These places offer much more than shelter. Covenant House services include 24/7 crisis care, education, counseling, medical treatment, skills development, job training and assistance with employment. In Toronto alone, some 90,000 kids have been helped over the years.
Covenant House depends on donations for 80 percent of its funding. The annual Sleep Out makes a difference. This year alone, 920 sleepers across North America raised more than $5 million for the cause.
I think the Sleep Out accomplishes several things. First, it raises badly needed funds. But, it also raises awareness. Within my own circle of family and friends, my Global Knowledge family and my broader community, there is a greater awareness of the issues facing at-risk youth — homelessness, mental illness and human trafficking, to name just three. This event has allowed me to act in solidarity with these young people, and to achieve something that goes beyond fundraising. I don’t think I or anyone else involved in the Sleep Out will ever again see a street kid in a dirty hoodie in quite the same way.