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Through the Eyes of a Young Person

Recently, grade nine students from Island Pacific School held a Sleep Out: Student Edition to raise funds for CHV. As part of their experience, students spent the day visiting the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, prior to their night of sleeping out.

This year, the students raised $8,397.00 for Covenant House Vancouver. Island Pacific School has participated in Sleep Out: Student Edition, since its inception, 8 years ago, and in total has raised an amazing $75,047.00 for CHV!

A teacher and a couple of students shared their experiences on our most recent Under One Roof podcast episode. You can listen to it here, or you can read below for a few snippets from the interview.

Why does Island Pacific School participate in Sleep Out: Student Edition and what makes you keep coming back?

Jennifer Henrichsen, Assistant Head of School, explains. “Grade nine is their capstone year, so we want them to have a meaningful experience. Our community is Bowen Island and Vancouver. We hope that they will see what youth the same age and a little older are experiencing coming from different backgrounds or circumstances. We try to build on empathy. With different backgrounds, you’re going to have different challenges and we, as a group of people, can help each other through those challenges.

It was our students who wanted to have more of a direct impact and tackle issues that were bigger than helping with a garden or things like that on Bowen. It was their idea to somehow work in the downtown East Side. We partnered with CHV because our youth wanted to help other youth. This has become a tradition for our grade nines and they try to out fundraise each other. They hear stories from the years before them and try to build on that experience.

Sleep Out: Student Edition is a valuable program as it gives students a one-day immersion of what it might be like to be homeless, to feel unsafe [with] nowhere to go, so that they feel it for a day of what other youth experience night after night. It’s important to us that we teamed up with CHV so that those [youth] can get the funding that they need.”

As a young person, what was the experience like?

Caelan: “I have been through there [the Downtown Eastside] before, but I always looked down. You don’t look at the people. It’s scary. You try to get through there as fast as you can. This time was different. I forced myself to look at people, smile, say hi, and you really see the people, their souls, their hurt. They’re there, they’re real. There were so many more people than I expected. When you’re just driving through there or walking, you don’t really notice. There are crowds of people who crowd around services and some of them look sad, some of them look happy; there’s so many people, I can’t believe it.”

Hannah: “It was very overwhelming. I didn’t realize that there’d be so many people who were homeless. It was very eye opening for me because I don’t go into town very often and when I do it’s just to visit grandparents, so I didn’t expect to see so many people essentially on my doorstep.”

Is there something that you found surprising or that impacted you?

Caelan: “It was crazy how close everything was. It was so close to home. It’s so close to places that I go to every day. You see these people that are hurting and everyone just walks past. You try to ignore them but I’m not going to be able to do that again. It felt very close to home and the people on streets could be people I know. It could happen to anyone. We were going down Hastings and there was a soup kitchen and the rest of the block was empty but it was crowded around this door and some of them were on the ground and you could see how much they need services and how little there are. That was the only place I saw that provided food for people living on the streets and I realized how little support there is for them.”

Hannah: “There were some older men hanging out on the corner and one of their buddies came over from walking down the street and they were laughing and joking and they seemed like friends hanging out, like I do with my friends. It struck me how normal it is to see people having fun and bonding with each other. I always thought of [homeless] people more as a label. I didn’t see them as people themselves, but as the general idea.”

You were each given $2.00 to try and find something for dinner. What did you spend your money on?

Caelan: “With some hints from a teacher, we figured out that Costco had the cheapest food. You can get a hotdog and a pop for $1.50. we got down there and we realized that you can’t use cash, because of COVID, so we had to approach someone at the automated checkout and give them the money and ask them if they could buy us the food. I don’t feel it would have worked if we were living on the streets and maybe not as presentable, and you might not feel comfortable talking to people, and they might not want to help you.”

Hannah: “It was basically the same as Caelan. We went to Costco as well, but there was another group who went to Dollarama. They had a two-for-one ramen sale so they got four bowls of ramen noodles and then they went to a different store for Fruit Loops as one person was a picky eater and wouldn’t eat anything else. Then they went to this other store for hot water and the person at the hot water station said, ‘sure here you go!’ They also got two of the big juice things for cheap. They did pretty well, but one of my friends, who is vegetarian though, basically had a small thing of fries for $1.99 with a bunch of relish packets for dinner. We bought Timbits for dessert, which is also basically just sugar and carbs. So, if you’re trying to stay healthy it’s harder, because everything is more expensive.”

You mentioned that the experience was overwhelming. How?

Caelan: “It felt like when you look up into the sky and see so many stars and you’re so small, it was overwhelming, but in the wrong way. There were so many people, and I didn’t know how to help, if I could help, or would I make it worse? There’s so much uncertainty when you’re out there and you see people just pass them by because they don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to help. I felt terrible for that.”

Hannah: “Our teachers took us right to the hub of it, at Hastings and Main. It was so much more than I was expecting. There were shops that were boarded up and windows that had bars across them. You don’t see that in every neighbourhood. Only down there where they feel that they need it. I have this overwhelming sense of needing to help, and wanting to help, but how? Will they even accept my help or will it be one of those moments where ‘I’m trying to save you’ but they don’t need that, they need support.”

Last night, when you got back to Bowen, you slept out. What was that experience like for you?

Caelan: “We were all sleeping on thin, insulated mattresses on gravel or concrete and a sleeping bag. I didn’t bring a pillow, so I found a sweater. I felt safe. I knew that I wasn’t in danger, but it wasn’t pleasant. I didn’t get a great sleep. I got a few hours, on and off. I can’t imagine what that would be like, sleeping on the streets where you don’t know if you’re safe. You got noise, there’s people, you have constant, pressing danger. I don’t think that I would get any sleep on the street.”

Hannah: “I was kind of worried, as I was falling asleep, because a friend had told a scary story and I have an imagination that runs away with me, so there were all these things going through my head like ‘what if this happens?’ And suddenly, I thought of what it would be like if I was downtown sleeping. And the list just got so much longer, of the things that I had to worry about. I don’t think that I would have been able to sleep either [on the street] and I don’t know how people do it.”

Does it give you an idea about how hard it would be to break that cycle if you didn’t have support?

Caelan: “They’re [challenges] bigger than anyone realizes. Going through this for one night is exhausting. Doing that every night, for an extended period of time, you would lose your will to live. I don’t think that I could do that, and it makes me feel terrible.”

Hannah: “I think that the youth on the street are resilient in how they have a lot of courage and experience that we can learn from.”

When you tell your family and friends about the Sleep Out experience, what is one thing that you want them to know?

Caelan: “How much we don’t realize what people go through. Most people close their eyes to it, they try to walk past without seeing what’s happening. I think that it’s important for us to open our eyes and see the people and realize how much they are going through and that they are people too. I hope that everyone realizes that.”

Hannah: “I want them to realize that homelessness is something that can happen to anyone. It’s not just something that is an accident. Fate gives us a hand of cards and how those cards play out really determines where we are. And, I want to help. Try seeing the people while walking around. Don’t keep your face down, look them in the eye.”

Thank you, Island Pacific School for your ongoing support and compassion for vulnerable youth.