This experience will stay with me for a lifetime…

Below is an email that was sent to us from a Sleep Out participant who wishes to remain anonymous. I hope you will take the time to read this; it is incredibly inspiring and touching.

I wanted to share with you the post I wrote shortly after the sleep out. The experience not only changes the lives of the youth for whom the money was raised, but also each of us that participated. Thank you for all you do every day. This experience will stay with me for a lifetime…

It’s not every day that you go to sleep and know for sure you will wake up a different person.

That’s how I felt last night as I snuggled into my sleeping bag atop a piece of cardboard in a dark alley on Pender Street. As I tried to make sure every square inch of me was protected from the wind and cold (which is pretty impossible, by the way) I knew that I would wake up with a different perspective on life. It was a long, cold night. Though, not as bad as I thought it would be in some respects. The sleeping bag kept me warm but even the slightest part that wasn’t covered was frozen. I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to have a sleeping bag when so many homeless have only cardboard and newspaper to protect them from the below-freezing temperatures or rain. They showed us how to crumple newspaper and stuff it in our clothing to act as insulation… These are the lessons that hundreds of homeless youth learn every night instead of algebra or angry birds or Facebook.

The hours leading up to bedtime were long, emotional and bonding. So much so, that by the time I laid down I fell asleep pretty easily. It was unnerving listening to all of the street noise which seemed amplified and I resisted the urge to sit bolt upright every time I heard a skitter from the corner or footsteps near my head. I knew we were protected. We had amazing support workers that watched over us all night long. And yet, what would it have been like to fall asleep exhausted in a doorway. Vulnerable, exposed, and woken by a kick or a shake from annoyed strangers. Being yelled at to move along when the only crime was trying to find a sheltered place to fall into exhaustion. Or worse, being exploited simply because you are there…

When I woke up this morning my overwhelming realization was this: How bad would it have to be that you would choose this? What horrors must you be running from that sleeping alone in the cold, on the streets, is the more desirable option? I awoke in the dark before the media arrived and as I sat on my cardboard with my head low, covered by a hood, huddled and shaking from the cold I thought “I must look like a homeless person”… Even as I pined for the warm car with heated seats and a hot coffee that would shortly whisk me away, I contemplated what it would be like to wake up with nowhere to go…. No one to give me a hug or say good morning.  Nowhere even to use the restroom without hiking for blocks with all of my belongings only to be told “for customers only”. How easily we take for granted such basic necessities….

I left early this morning. Shied away from all of the cameras, before many were even unfolded from their sleeping bags, and avoided the conversations of “how was your night”. It was still dark when I escaped to the warm car and sipped my hot coffee. I ran not because I wanted it to be over – in some ways I regret not staying to hear the experiences of others – but because I wanted to stay huddled in my own thoughts and observations. I didn’t want to lose the reflective state I was in and I needed time to process my own feelings before being pressed to articulate them to others. Even now I’m ignoring the relentless pings of emails, text messages, and voicemails. I’m not ready yet to go back to reality and am terrified of washing away this experience too soon….

And yet it wasn’t the cold or sleeping outside that caused the most profound shift in me. It was late last night as all the participants were mingling around the darkened alley like an odd cocktail party full of the usual small talk. A man approached us asking for $2 for the bus. I watched the faces of those who had spent weeks fundraising for homelessness and paid attention to my own instinctual reaction: why should I give you money to buy drugs? This was my first thought. I’m not proud of it, but it was my honest knee jerk reaction, and the obvious reaction of others standing by. In that moment I knew that it’s all about choices. Not just the choices of the people on the street to leave wherever they came from, to spend $2 on food or drugs, to seek shelter or not. But also the choices that each of us make every day. To judge or to show compassion. To sit in front of the TV or take action. To buy a latte or give someone $5 worth of hope. Regardless of how that hope is spent. When did we decide that it was our job to deem someone worthy of our aide? When did we decide that the reasons or the choices that another makes should dictate whether or not we show compassion. More than the cold or the cardboard or the rats or the noise, it was that moment that shifted my perspective so completely. In that moment I decided to be different. To not let the reasons for someone’s suffering determine whether or not I reach out a hand. That no matter whether someone falls into the ocean or jumps intentionally, that I want to be there with a hand to pull them out. Because life is about choices. I can’t make anyone else’s but I can make my own.

I urge you to take a quiet minute to think about your choices, your honest knee jerk reactions, your judgment’s, your time, and your actions. And ask yourself what choices you’ll make differently today.

sleep out