Helping young people find shelter by sleeping in the cold

As many as 2,000 young people are homeless in the Greater Toronto Area on any given night, shelter workers estimate, and a Newmarket facility raises funds and awareness with an outdoor sleepover.

'I have so many friends who've been homeless,' says teen helping to organize fundraiser

Michael Braithwaite, of 360 Kids, poses for a selfie with Sam, transgender teenager and resident of the shelter. (360 Kids)

As many as 2,000 young people are homeless in the Greater Toronto Area on any given night, shelter workers estimate, most of them because of abuse or neglect at home.

Sam was kicked out of his home last summer when his parents found out he'd begun transitioning from female to male. Ever since, the 17-year-old has been living at a youth shelter in Newmarket, called 360 Kids. He has agreed to speak to CBC if his last name isn't used.

This week, Sam will be sleeping outside to help raise money for the shelter that has supported him. Joining him will be staff from the shelter, as well as public officials in Newmarket.

Coming out via text

Like many transitioning young people, Sam first came out as trans to friends. That was about two years ago.

His parents found out before he was ready to reveal it to them, and they did not react well.

Sam had arranged gender reassignment therapy at the Hospital for Sick Children, and was texting his friends about the progress he was making. He accidentally sent one of the texts to his mother. 

His secret was out and, after a big argument, so was he. He left his family home and moved in with a friend.

His teacher in Markham's Burr Oak Secondary School connected Sam with the Newmarket shelter. "She was amazing," said Sam of the teacher. It sent him on the path he is on now.

"Honestly, if you'd told me last year that I would be in a place where everyone supports me, I would have denied it," Sam said.

A welcome shelter

It was not by accident that Sam found 360 Kids. The shelter puts the word out around schools to help young people find it.

"At any given time, we figure there are 300 young people looking for shelter in York Region," said Michael Braithwaite, the executive director of 360 Kids.

Young people are often embarrassed about being homeless and don't want anyone to know they don't have a place to stay, according to Braithwaite. They end up sleeping wherever they can find a place, and they don't always know where the shelters are, he said.

Sam has felt welcome at the shelter — so welcome he's even more comfortable in some respects than ever before. When he arrived, he still was using the women's washroom, but was increasingly uncomfortable with that.

"I told them I was uncomfortable using gendered washrooms," he said.

So the shelter made the washrooms ungendered, letting Sam choose which he uses.

Sleepover

The shelter's annual sleepover to raise money for 360 Kids will include 36 people in total, including Newmarket's police chief, senior officers and some area MPs and MPPs.

A few supporters of 360 Kids sleeping outside in Newmarket. (360 Kids)

The overnight guests arrive at the shelter and are given a real-life scenario. That is, a young person who's had a blowup with family and can't sleep at home, or a young person escaping physical abuse.

The participants gather at the original 360 Kids drop-in on the outskirts of Markham, where they're given a bus token, and a scenario that many homeless teens in the region have found themselves in.

That means traveling to one of half a dozen far flung shelters across the region, a trip that can take well over an hour, thanks to circuitous suburban bus routes and the lateness of the hour.

Participants then return to the 360 Kids drop-in, where they get a tarp and sleeping bag and are left to sleep on the property around the drop-in until the doors open in the morning at 6 a.m.

It's a very emotional experience for the participants, many of whom experience for the first time what a young person who can't go home for the night might go through. 

In the morning, everyone gets together to talk about the experience.

"Last year, these people were emotionally and physically exhausted," Braithwaite said. "And if they were real kids, they would go to school after a night like that."

This is an experience Sam knows well. "I have so many friends who've been homeless," he said. "I've had to do this."

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