Nobody’s saying that the YSB SleepOUT for Youth — where participants spend a night outdoors in sub-zero temperatures — compares to the authentic experience of living on the streets. But, what the unique fundraiser for the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa does do is: create a collective capacity for empathy when it comes to homelessness.
The 7th annual SleepOUT returned Thursday to the sports field at TD Place Stadium, bringing together up to 650 people, most of whom were students, corporate sponsors and YSB supporters. Together, they braved the cold to help the YSB Foundation raise $228,000, or about 91 percent of its quarter-million-dollar goal.
It was the fifth year of pitching a tent for Robert Rhéaume, a partner at accounting consultancy BDO Canada. He once again hauled in the most dough, at $10,275. He was later rewarded by organizers with a faux fur-trimmed aviator hat to add to his growing collection (he had on the huge furry trapper given to him last year).
The cold doesn't get to him. "You still feel warm inside, just seeing the young people getting involved and showing an interest in helping others," he told OBJ.social.
Rhéaume’s 17-member team raised $15,000-plus, topped only by the teens at Lisgar Collegiate Institute. The high school students collected more than $16,000. One of its members, 17-year-old Fiona Murray, was the event’s second-highest fundraiser, at $7,639. Her mom, Rebecca Murray, is a senior development officer at Carleton University and sits on the board of the Youth Services Bureau. She also participated.
The weather this year was more favourable than last year, when it rained and many participants got wet – and stayed wet. At the same time, the mercury did continue to drop throughout the evening. By morning, the crowd awoke to double minus digits.
On hand that night were: YSB executive director Joanne Lowe and board chair Scott Lawrence, COO of HealthCraft Products Inc., and YSB Foundation executive director Patti Murphy and her board chair, James Malizia, who is an assistant commissioner with the RCMP. He also captained the Sleepless Mounties, which raised $13,303.
There are an estimated 1,400 youth in Ottawa who are homeless, meaning they have no permanent address. The number one reason they end up on the streets is related to conflicts with their family. Almost half of homeless youth have reportedly attempted suicide and more than two-thirds have at least one diagnosable mental health issue.
“We all have an image of what homelessness looks like; it’s that young person on a cardboard box on Rideau," said YSB's communications manager, Suzanne Fraser. "It’s much more insidious than that. Even if you’re “couch surfing” or sleeping in someone’s garage, you’re still homeless; you’re not stably housed.
“You’re also — and this is hyper important for young people — not safe. We’re sleeping out but we’re sleeping out in a safe environment. Nobody is going to kick us out, nobody is going to beat us up. We’re safe.
“The youth in Ottawa who are homeless are not safe.”
Funds raised from SleepOUT are going toward its housing support programs. It offers emergency shelter for youth seeking temporary housing. It also offers transitional and long-term housing programs.
It’s currently constructing a new 39-unit building for homeless youth on Riverside Drive, slated to open next fall. The complex will also offer support in the areas of health, mental health, and employment and education opportunities.
The event was presented by Canadian home furniture retailer The Brick, which announced that night that it was giving an additional $10,000.
Sheila Bayne from sponsor Homestead Land Holdings dropped by to see her grandson, Sebastian Cino, 15. He's a member of YSB’s Youth Cabinet and was helping out that night.
Tomlinson Group of Companies was joined this year by senior vice president Paul McCarney. Kudos to him, particularly since his warm and cosy home was within clear sight of his tent. He lives in The Rideau at Lansdowne condo building, located at the west end of the field.
The Tomlinson team raised more than $11,000.
It was a given that the Weider family would be there, considering they helped create what has become YSB’s largest fundraiser. Mike Weider is on the board of the YSB and is chief executive of Clearwater Clinical, which designs and manufactures medical-grade devices and surgical equipment. He was joined by his wife, Kate McCartney Weider, and their three daughters, Hannah, 17, Sophie, 16, and Cece, 13. The girls were recognized with the Outstanding Youth Award last year by the Ottawa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professional for their contributions to YSB's SleepOUT.
Hanna raised $940 while her dad brought in $6,700 for the cause.
SleepOUT participants were seen playing bubble hockey, tossing around the football, chatting around the gas fire pits and chowing down on pizza while emcee Carlo Lombard kept the music going until bedtime.
“We’re very aware that this is just one night,” Murphy told OBJ.social. “We’re not trying to make light of homelessness in any fashion by gathering together on the field. I mean, we have sleeping bags, we have tents, we have the ability to scoot inside and access the facilities.
“It’s not our goal to emulate what it feels like to be homeless but it does kind of give people a sense of, ‘Listen, you’re going without the comforts of home for this one night. Yes, you’re going to have access to a piece of pizza and maybe some coffee and a few other things that will make your evening manageable, but it really is about giving you a little bit of a sense of what would that be like on a recurring basis, if you were, indeed homeless’.”