WHEN North Vancouver's Ryan Lenarduzzi agreed to spend a night outside in downtown Vancouver in support of homeless youth, he knew it would make an impact on his perspective; however, he was unprepared for just how much.
Ryan was among the participants in the first Covenant House Vancouver Sleep Out. An international campaign, Sleep Out was started by Covenant House New York. The inaugural local event was held Nov. 15 and saw a group of 19 high-level executives, local celebrities, donors and other community members agree to spend a night in a Vancouver alley. Funds raised supported Covenant House, which helps young people, ages 16-24 with nowhere to go, who have potentially experienced physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, been forced from their homes or who have aged out of foster care, through a 54-bed crisis shelter. Covenant House also conducts street outreach and runs a long-term housing program.
The experience was eye-opening to say the least, says Ryan, who works as an athletic events, marketing and sport development officer in Capilano University's department of athletics and recreation. He participated in the event with his father, Bob Lenarduzzi, a fellow North Vancouver resident, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC president. Sleepers included Save On Meat's Mark Brand, Breakfast Television's Riaz Meghji, TV personality Jillian Harris and her boyfriend, professional snowboarder Justin Pasutto, Elaine "Lainey" Lui, and other executives, including those representing BCIT, Impark and Bootlegger.
Upon their arrival at Covenant House, the group was treated as if they were youths seeking support, seeing them sit down to dinner in the centre's common area. They were given information on Covenant House's mission and programming and were taken on a site tour.
They also engaged in a roundtable discussion with youths currently being served by Covenant House's shelter and Rights of Passage life skills and transitional housing programs. The youths spoke openly about their respective homelessness journeys and how they had come to Covenant House, and answered questions.
"That was probably the most impactful part of the night because obviously we all hear about homelessness in Vancouver consistently on the news and how it's an issue," says Ryan. "But I don't know why, but for some reason when you hear it so much it almost numbs you out to the fact that they're real people, and not street people, like kids. And when you're hearing them talk about having to sleep in Stanley Park for nights on end or trying to scrape together enough clothing so that they don't freeze in the night, just things like that, it really hits home that we live in two separate worlds. There's the world of the non-homeless and the world of the homeless, but they're both in the same world. It's just that we don't really see it as much as we should."
Ryan was moved when he heard the youths speak about how they've gone from a dark place to a new, healthier situation. Having found their inner passion, they're now being supported to actively pursue their personal goals. The strong message of hope they carried was truly an inspiration and also drove home the importance of helping other youths still struggling and not being supported, he says.
The group then headed outside, having been armed with advice from the youth speakers about how to stay warm - like to crumple up newspaper and stuff it into their clothes as insulation.
The group spent the night in a back alley near Covenant House, each allotted a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard.
"That was it, no pillows, no nothing," says Ryan. "It sounds like a bad thing, but once again, some of the stories the kids told us, that's what made this really easy was because we just were told all that stuff, so we go out there and there was no room to bitch and complain."
It proved to be a sleepless night due to the area noises, low temperature, discomfort and the sensation of being exposed. "Not to mention my father was snoring all night, so that didn't help," laughs Ryan.
Nonetheless, he was glad he was able to share the experience with his dad.
"Lately our family has been trying to do a little more to give back," says Ryan. "My dad has always done a lot of it just though the Whitecaps, but we've been trying to do some things with our bonding time, with our family time. Instead of just getting together, we try and do things that are helpful to the community . . . . It was bonding time, guy time, and then above that it was an eye-opening experience for both of us to be able to share that experience and think of other ways now after that bug bit us of how we can utilize my dad's celebrity and find ways to use that to help out a little more. That's the plan moving forward if we can," he says.
The importance of raising awareness and giving back related to those struggling with homelessness is something Ryan plans to continue to advocate for, both in his personal and public life.
"For me the main thing was just trying to keep hold of that memory and keep that reality and ingrain that into everyday life now and make sure I'm constantly grateful and compassionate and aware of the fact that all these things are going on in the world around us," he says.
Ryan and Bob plan to continue to participate in Sleep Out in future years.
Marty Staniforth, development officer for Covenant House Vancouver, says the inaugural local Sleep Out event surpassed organizers' expectations. He recognized the powerful effect it had on the sleepers, as well as the youths who shared their stories with the group.
"When we first came up with this idea, we were a little bit apprehensive, just in terms of first and foremost we're always thinking about how our youth are going to perceive everything that we do," he says. "Just as we want the community to receive what we're doing well, we want our youth to view it in the same light. We went to the youth with this idea because we didn't know for sure if doing something where we would be asking people to sleep out on the street was kind of like tokenism or whatnot. We went to our youth, we asked, we had discussions about it with the staff. Everybody, especially the youth were like, 'This is so cool.'"
They decided to move forward with the initiative and went one step further, asking some of their youths whether they'd be interested in participating in the event and speaking directly with the sleepers in the round table.
"Sometimes it's a bit difficult to get youth to step forward and do something where they're telling their story and we frankly don't ask them to do it much," says Staniforth. "Because of the intimacy of this event, we thought it would be a good fit. Youth threw themselves at it."
They asked to have two or three people show up and upwards of 10 volunteered.
While the event was a resounding success in terms of awareness and fundraising - Sleep Out garnered a lot of media attention and raised $240,000 (through donations and a matching funds component), enough to provide almost one month of shelter care for youth at the centre - a strong need continues to exist on both fronts.
"We're a residential and non-residential continuum of care. . . . We basically are providing services to some of Vancouver's hardest to serve, young people who are looking to find wellness and exit the street life once and for all. Regardless of where that young person is in terms of their capacity for change, we can work with them," says Staniforth.
They help youths from all communities in the Lower Mainland, including the North Shore, and beyond.
The holidays are particularly challenging for their young people, and by extension the Covenant House staff trying to best serve them, says Staniforth. "It's truly the most overwhelming time of year for us at Covenant House," he says. "Every time of year is an emotional time of year for a young person who doesn't have anybody, but especially during the holidays we're overwhelmed with higher than average demand for having needs met. We just ask people to think of our young people when they're planning their holiday and family time, to think of those that don't have family and offer some support to us to help them."
Community members are encouraged to make monetary donations throughout the months of November and December as Covenant House Vancouver is running a matching funds campaign.
They're also running a Christmas Backpack Program and are seeking a variety of items, like blankets, toiletries and clothing items that are further outlined on their website, to be given to 275 homeless youth at their annual holiday party. Items are required by Dec. 9.
To make a donation or for more information on Covenant House Vancouver, visit covenanthousebc.org.