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Top Executives Talk About Sleeping on the Street for Covenant House

On Thursday, November 21st, some of Canada’s top executives spent the night outside on Toronto’s streets in support of Covenant House for Sleep Out: Executive Edition. Participants in the second annual Covenant House Executive Sleep Out bedded down with only a sleeping bag and piece of cardboard, a far cry from their plush duvets at home

On Thursday, November 21st, some of Canada’s top executives spent the night outside on Toronto’s streets in support of Covenant House for Sleep Out: Executive Addition. Participants in the second annual Covenant House Executive Sleep Out bedded down with only a sleeping bag and piece of cardboard, a far cry from their plush duvets at home. The initiative was led by event Co-chairs Tim Leiweke, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) President and CEO, and Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and and venture capitalist on the CBC series Dragons’ Den, raising more than $700,000 for homeless kids at Covenant House. We caught up with some of the executives to hear what they had to say about the experience… 

What surprised you most about this experience?

This is my second Covenant House sleepout so I knew I would be inspired and affected by what residents and alumni would likely share that evening about their own experiences and gratitude for Covenant House. What I did not expect, however, was the impact that the bus tour would have on me. Travelling around the streets of Toronto really helped illustrate the hardships of these young adults/teenagers who find themselves homeless.  It was eye-opening, even stunning, and very impactful. As I lay awake that evening, for a moment I saw the stark contrast of what we were doing –  yes, we were raising funds and awareness, but sleeping out was not a hardship for us. It did not represent nor can I possibly truly understand the true fear that a young person on the street must feel. I knew that as dawn broke that I would get up, have a warm breakfast and return to my normal life surrounded by loved ones and the promise of a future and life.
– Christine Magee, Sleep Country Canada Co-Founder and President

The one thing that surprised me the most about this experience was how amazing the kids were — some of the stories they shared with us at the sleep out were so powerful. These young Canadians are resilient, positive role models who have risen out of some unfortunate circumstances to lead and now help others who may be experiencing similar troubles. The other surprising thing was how many executives I met were returning to do the sleep out, year after year; it’s clearly a challenging but rewarding experience that is helping to make a difference and raise much-needed funds.
– James Politeski, President of Samsung

I was most surprised by how glad I was to not have to do it alone. Being on the streets is incredibly hard for these kids. I honestly can’t even imagine what it would be like to be alone as a youth facing the elements, fearing for my safety and not having any support.
– Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and 

Under one roof one finds a surprising variety of services – a medical clinic, a high school, a sanctuary for practising any and all faiths, a big common area, a gym, many bedrooms and many kitchens, and much more. There is a wonderful Arts and Minds program to aid those with mental health issues and a kitchen oriented to training young people to work in restaurants or simply learn how to cook for themselves. In short, a helping hand and a path forward for all those ready to take the first step.
– Patrick Nangle, Purolator President and CEO.

That when you take away the finery of the suit and the status of position and you lay yourself down on the cold, damp cement you become invisible to the rest of the city… much like our disenchanted youth. It provides a stunning vantage point from which to reflect and resolve that there is much to be done for those who do not have the benefit of family.
– Penny Stevens, President of Media Experts.

I think what surprised me the most was how receptive the residents of Covenant House were; the alumni and the kids towards the executives. They were honoured and flattered that anyone, let alone executives and business leaders from across the city, would do this for them on their behalf. Another thing that surprised me was the extent of the problem in this city; there could be as many as 3000 homeless kids on the street on any given night. When you hear the stories of these kids, they are not bad kids, but normal kids with normal issues who have been the subject of adverse conditions, like abuse in the home or a broken home and difficult family situation that’s forced them out of their home and onto the street. It’s just shocking that this problem exists.
– Duncan Hannay, Senior Marketing VP at Scotiabank

Well, first of all I want to say that our experience was nothing like the actual experience for kids who are homeless. We had new, beautiful brand new sleeping bags, hot chocolate before we went to bed, a roof overhead and an army of people watching us so we felt protected. Yes, I was on the damp pavement and my bones ached the next day, but so what. It was a pretty contrived situation. I think what surprised me the most was how well-run the organization was, just how many services they offer, and how dedicated the staff was. It saw the hope it provides to young people with a myriad of problems.
– Jeanne Beker, Host of Fashion Television Channel, Journalist, Author and Creative Director of EDIT.

What is the most resonating thing you’ll take away from that experience?

I had never truly appreciated how vulnerable these young folks are and how others prey on their vulnerability. Many of these youth find themselves in circumstances that are difficult, if not impossible, to escape from. Covenant House and their staff aptly explained the horrors and the challenges that some of these youth face. I was reminded, but also came to understand more deeply, how Covenant House and its programs are designed to provide real help. Further, listening to the alumni and residents talk about their own experiences solidified that Covenant House is making a real difference in helping these young adults.
– Christine Magee, Sleep Country Canada co-Founder and President

The biggest take-away from my experience with Sleep Out: Executive Edition is that we need to continue to help organizations like Covenant House in their work with Canadian youth. This is something that every Canadian can contribute to, whether through donations or participation in events similar to this one. The first-hand nature of this experience was also really eye-opening; it’s so much more than handing over a cheque. You get a sense of the daily struggles of young Canadians who have such incredible potential. It was a very moving experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Additionally, I truly cannot say enough about the people who work at Covenant House. Caring, optimistic, patient, encouraging, selfless – ultimately, amazing. They make a real difference. The cold: I don’t have the challenges that these kids face, but simply sleeping outside for one night (at only 5 degrees), I was frozen and tired in the morning.  It took me off my game for the day… it is painful to think what that would be like if it was a daily routine (at negative temperatures). That inspires me. 
– James Politeski, President of Samsung

 What resonated with me the most was listening to graduates of the program who had at some point or another been in Covenant House; kids who, through that experience, turned their lives around to become adults with purpose, clarity and hope. Listening to their stories made me realize that this can happen to anyone, and that small acts of kindness and support do indeed change lives. Compassion and understanding are critical. Ultimately what resonated with me was looking past the homeless status of the kid and seeing the potential of that person.
– Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and 

During dinner on the evening of the Sleep Out, we heard from a number of former and current residents; remarkable stories from people that identified the need for help and did something about it.  he young man sitting at my table was not much different in age than my own kids and shared many of the same kinds of dreams and aspirations. He just had a less lucky start in life. Through the help of Covenant House, he is pursuing his studies and dreams to be a lawyer one day, to defend those in difficult situations and pursue social justice issues. I am absolutely convinced he will realize that dream.
– Patrick Nangle, Purolator President and CEO

The strength and resolve of the youth that I met to rise above their troubled past and grab hold of the opportunity provided to them by Covenant House.
– Penny Stevens, President of Media Experts

The need to do more to help these kids go from life on the street to life in the future. Covenant House does an incredible job in providing all the right services, not just shelter. This means things like transitional housing, job support, healthcare, psychiatric support, plus more, and these are the types of things we need more of to improve the situation.
– Duncan Hannay, Senior Marketing VP at Scotiabank

The most resonating thing is that there are a lot of kids out there who just don’t have a plan – a lot of kids – but most of these kids without a plan are fine. They’re living in their parents’ homes, they have a warm bed and are taken care of. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have a plan Then there are the other kids who don’t. And they are really in trouble. They don’t have the support of friends and family or parents who are their personal cheerleaders. I look at the kids that I know and they just have so much and a lot take it for granted. We all do. This experience reminded me to appreciate what I have. I feel so lucky to have a big, beautiful bed to sleep in every night and a roof over my head and that my kids do have a plan, are on track, and are free to lead their lives the way they want to lead them. I hope to work with Covenant House in the future because I was so impressed with the organization.
– Jeanne Beker, Host of Fashion Television Channel, Journalist, Author and Creative Director of EDIT

What would you like to see happen in Toronto in the next decade?

I would like to see the streets of Toronto safe and free from the kind of suffering that I heard that evening and that the services of agencies like Covenant House are not necessary. However, I am less optimistic that the issues and circumstances that produce the kind of systemic problems of drugs, gangs, prostitution, homelessness, etc. will be solved in a decade. There is no simple solution. But I would hope in 10 years that education and services like those provided by Covenant House shed light on these issues; that better awareness and social consciousness can reverse or address the issues that produce the human conditions that cause or perpetuate these issues. I also hope that in 10 years our governments, businesses and individuals alike increasingly support those programs that look to eradicate these problems and that agencies like Covenant House are provided the funding to increase their outreach and influence in order to embrace and support those young folks who find themselves in need. 
– Christine Magee, Sleep Country Canada co-Founder and President

I would love for there to be more support for organizations like Covenant House. These children are our future, and they need as much help as we’re able to offer. We can do so much to help them, and any way our city can come together in this effort is something we should all stand behind and support.
– James Politeski, President of Samsung

Homelessness should not be something we simply accept. Over the next decade success will happen when there are more programs that help people become self sufficient so they can have the dignity and opportunity they deserve. It’s about affordable housing, affordable nutritional food, education, skill training and basic human rights.   
– Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and 

Toronto is one of the toughest places in Canada for youth to land a job. The employment gap between youth and older workers is at an all-time high, with only one in two youth holding down a paying job. If businesses, government, educators and the community do not work together to solve this problem, I am deeply concerned about the future prospects of our youth. We need to give them pathways to prosperity and hope. If we don’t do this, 10 years from now we could be at a dire crossroads with an aged population that depends on a workforce that has not had the opportunity to develop into a strong and knowledgeable set of adults. We need to work with our youth now, help them find pathways to success, and build a strong future for all Canadians. Happily, that is part of what Covenant House is doing today for the youths they support.
– Patrick Nangle, Purolator President and CEO.

There are many things, but specific to youth it is probably creating safe houses for 20-somethings that are too old for Covenant House but still need refuge, places that are better than Seaton House, which was described to me as “hell on earth.” IT might be an exaggeration, but I took the point.
– Penny Stevens, President of Media Experts.

I would like to see us move toward a solution, not just addressing the issue of homelessness in reacting to the need for shelter and services; rather, to get to the root. Homelessness is preventable. I would like to see everyone work collaboratively toward a solution so kids don’t become homeless in the first place. There needs to be the right checks and balances in the system before they go to seek support from the wrong sources; they need to be able to get the support they need before they become homeless.
– Duncan Hannay, Senior Marketing VP at Scotiabank

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