Campers spend frigid night at Lansdowne Park for homeless youth

More than 650 people prepared to camp outside at Lansdowne Park on Thursday night for a Youth Services Bureau fundraising event known as SleepOut for Youth.

High school students, firefighters, police officers, politicians and local leaders, including Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau, were among those planning to spend the night camped outside at TD Place stadium.

The forecast called for an overnight low of -11 C.

“Most people are very well prepared,” said Joanne Lowe, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau (YSB).

She noted that during the first year of the sleepout, seven years ago at Ottawa City Hall, the overnight temperature hit -32 C.

Last year’s event raised more than $250,000 for services to address youth homelessness, and organizers hoped to top that mark this year.

“The event gives us an opportunity to raise awareness, particularly among young people, about the reality that some of their peers live,” said Lowe.

Tents cover the football field on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, as campers prepare to spend the night in SleepOut for Youth at TD Place stadium. Anne Girard photo

“I think what we want people to take away with them is a bit of a taste of what it’s like for a young person who doesn’t have a safe place to go or a home to go to.”

Money raised this year will be put toward the construction of a new 39-unit supportive housing complex for young people on Riverside Drive.

The YSB offers more than 30 programs that address issues such as homelessness, mental health, education, employment, housing and criminal justice. The agency serves 3,500 youth and their families each month.

The agency embraces a housing-first policy. It means the YSB tries to solve a young person’s most immediate crisis — a place to stay — before addressing addiction, mental health or other personal issues.

Those at YSB’s youth shelters have access to meals, food banks, health care, crisis counselling and other services, including longer-term housing options.

Many homeless youth have gone through the Children’s Aid Society system, or have been kicked out of their  family homes because of addiction or parents unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. Emotional trauma and mental health issues are commonplace. Young immigrants often end up in shelters after the breakdown of family sponsorships.

“People experience homelessness for a lot of different reasons,” Lowe said, “and this event gives us the chance to create a conversation about how that happens for young people in our community.”

With an annual budget of $28 million, the YSB employs more than 350 people at 20 locations across the city. Its services are financed by the province the City of Ottawa, the United Way and private donations.

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