A sleeping bag, a piece of cardboard, and a spot on the pavement during a December night.
It doesn’t sound comfortable, but as Carson Graham student Mary England points out: “It’s not supposed to be.”
It’s a little after 3 p.m. on a Monday and a crowd of Carson kids are streaming down Jones Avenue, happily released for another day. There’s a basketball game in the gym and in the school’s studio a crowd of improv actors are playing a call-and-response game where one performer shouts “Gordon Ramsay!” and the group yells back: “Where’s the lamb sauce?” over and over.
But on the far side of the school the mood is almost meditative as students reflect on the hundreds of young people who sleep on the streets.
On Dec. 5, more than 40 Carson Graham students are set to spend a night sleeping outside to raise money for Covenant House, an agency that offers shelter and counselling for homeless youth.
“It’s not just a shelter house and it’s not just a transition home. It actually helps people get back on their feet,” Grade 12 student Kseniya Yakovenko explains.
Homelessness is an easily identifiable problem in Vancouver’s core. But in North Vancouver it can sometimes go undetected, Yakovenko explains, noting a few kids who couch surf.
“You don’t even know what they’re going through, but you just know they ask to stay at a friend’s house every night,” she says.
Fellow student Olivia Sinclare agrees. There are teens who have a home, but “it’s a home they don’t feel comfortable going to.”
Sinclare and Yakovenko both raised money for Covenant House by doing the sleep out in 2018.
“I honestly had no idea what to expect,” Sinclare says. “It is kind of shocking to hear your teacher be like: ‘It’s the coldest week of December and we’re going to be sleeping outside.’”
Sinclare remembers everyone trundling outside in winter jackets and trying to get some shuteye under the school’s unblinking lights. The school raised $10,255 in 2018. But what Sinclare remembers most is, before they headed outside, she and her classmates sat in a circle and talked about why they were doing it.
“A common thread was that it was for people our age,” she reflects.
Carson Graham teacher Rob Olson, who splits his time between the robotics lab and the leadership program, emphasized the students were doing the sleep out “with a lot of humility.”
But, he added, the night outdoors was also a chance to give the kids a sense of reality.
Sinclare recalls fireworks popping and the unnerving sound of someone walking through the parking lot singing a tune at 2 a.m.
“It’s not just that you’re outside and it’s cold,” she reflects. “Weird stuff happens.”
Preparing to do his first sleep out, Oscar La Rusic says he hopes to gain a little understanding of what life is like for some people.
“I think that I’ll gain more insight on the experiences of not just homeless youth but homeless people in general and what they go through, especially on a really cold night,” he adds.
“I also thought it would be a really humbling experience to sleep outside and experience what so many homeless youth go through,” she says.
For England, she looks at the sleepout as a chance to contribute.
“I’m hoping to make a difference in the community any way I can,” she says.
The students understand just how complex homelessness is. There can be mental health problems, drug abuse, or different family issues, La Rusic notes.
That’s why it’s so important that Covenant House offers food, counselling, and programs to help kids get back on their feet.
“It’s not just a bed to sleep in,” Sinclare says. “It’s something that’s going to set you up to figure out how to pay for your own bed to sleep in.”
The Carson Graham sleep out is set for Dec. 5.
For more information or to donate, visit covenanthousebc.org and search for Sleep Out: Student Edition.
On Nov. 21, Lynn Valley entrepreneur Nigel Bennett recently raised $21,246 for Covenant House with the help of approximately 125 donors.
“I am astonished to witness your incredible generosity,” Bennett wrote in a thank you email to his supporters.