Shelters might provide a roof overhead, but not necessarily safety.
Nothing suggested this person was dealing with serious issues: they wore the coolest new sneakers, played video games late into the night, and often would speak in a mix of Internet jargon and meme jokes. There was no way this youth could be homeless, I thought.
A few winters ago, I spent one extraordinary night wandering the streets of York Region, experiencing first-hand what homeless youth from our community go through every night. Organizers wanted us to better understand what homeless youth in York Region face every night.
I am fading in and out of the conversation -- lost between the hum of the bus and the fact that it's after 10 p.m. On any regular night, I'd be getting ready to go to bed and thinking about school the next day. Tonight I'm trying to get out of -20 degrees Celsius and find us all a bed.
It can take less than 10 seconds for a youth to become homeless. In York Region, homeless youth, more often than not, do not fit the stereotypical profile. Unlike urban centres, these young people are often homeless not just due to poverty. They stem from middle-class families and end up on the street for a variety of reasons.
Each year, 360⁰kids -- an organization that provides a range of services to York Region's homeless youth -- encourages local community members to experience homelessness, just for one night a year. Last March, our group made it through some bone-chilling temperatures. I will do it again this year. For more than 300 youth in a region that's home to large detached homes and flourishing businesses, they've lost count of how many nights they've been homeless. It's an issue that doesn't get enough attention.
I can't truly explain how exhausting, challenging and incredibly cold this night was. I had been given a real-life scenario of a homeless youth as a part of 360°kids' 360°Experience. Our experience had us stepping into the shoes of a 16-year-old male, who was unsafe at home and had to leave quickly to save himself.
The holiday season is truly a magical time of year. It is a time for giving, reflection, and appreciation. Many individuals and organizations come together and show thanks by donating what they can to those in need. Unfortunately, the holidays will not be magical for everyone, especially not for a high proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and 2-Spirit (LGBTQ2S) youth who have experienced familial, societal, and institutional rejection. The holidays can be an especially lonely time for many, particularly for those without a safe place to call home.
As humans, we need to sleep. It is a biologically unavoidable act. Yet, on both sides of the border, "sleeping" can be considered a criminal act, especially if you are homeless and have no place to rest your head other than in public spaces such as parks. How have cities and states been able to impose and enforce by-laws and ordinances that clearly violate one's right to occupy public space for this very purpose? This summer several cases are putting this longstanding question to the legal test. The outcome might just change the way we view homelessness.
Anthony Van Zant is a homeless musician we've been filming for a year for a documentary film called Lowdown Tracks. We recorded the songs and stories of homeless musicians, but the process of making this film lead to even deeper revelations about my own prejudices and fears.