Homeless on a Wintry Night in Vancouver

The following is a personal account by NASIMCO President, Mohamed Dewji, who spent a night sleeping on the streets of Vancouver to raise awareness for Covenant House, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless, runaway and at-risk youth.

Iarrived at Covenant House at 7:30 pm on Thursday night and mingled with the few dozen people who had signed up to learn about the organization, and experience homelessness for a night. I was humbled by the prospect of sleeping out in the freezing cold with nothing but a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag, but the humility soon turned in to inspiration after meeting a few “residents” of the facility.

We met Jakeb who had been living on the streets for months before finding his way to Covenant House. After much work with the staff and counselors, he had been accepted into their “Rights of Passage” program of semi-independent living. The day we met was a special day for him — he had just been accepted into college.

Then we were introduced to Matthew who had been living out of his car for eight months and suffering from drug addiction, all whilst trying to hold down a job. He had been clean for two months. From listening to these two young men, it was apparent that Covenant House was the lifeline they needed to reach for after they had hit rock bottom. Both Jakeb and Matthew were appreciative of the fact that we were there to experience their plight of homelessness- albeit, only for one night.

At about 10:30 pm, after putting on layers upon layers of clothing, we received our prized possessions: a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag. Those two items were all we had to protect ourselves from the fierce wind, the biting cold, and the realities of sleeping on the street.

NASIMCO President, Mohamed Dewji, with his sleeping bag and piece of cardboard as he heads out to the spend the night on Vancouver’s streets.

We headed out to the back alley and scoped out the territory. I found a piece of property about the size of a grave on a driveway off the alley. I looked up to the sky, wondering if it would open up and pour rain like it had earlier that day, but thankfully it was clear. Clear, but damn cold.

Before trying to sleep, we were asked to write a gratitude journal — just a few things we were grateful for as we lay on the street. It didn’t take me long at all. I was grateful for the layers of clothes I owned. I was grateful for the family and friends who supported me and encouraged me to experience this. And I was grateful that the homeless youth of Vancouver have a place like Covenant House to seek shelter. I thought about the countless number of people around the world driven into homelessness either due to poverty or war who simply don’t have the support of organizations such as this one.

Sleep came quickly enough, but I woke up at about midnight thinking ‘I knew this would happen!’ I shouldn’t have had that cup of coffee — or that bottle of water! I lazily got out of my cozy sleeping bag and one of the staff members (who stayed up to watch over us) gave me the option of using the portable potty or the washroom inside. I chose the latter. You know, najasat and all. When I got back, it dawned on me that I should be thankful my sleeping bag and piece of cardboard were still there.

Participants experiencing homelessness for the first time. It was as uncomfortable as it looks!

It was pretty much all downhill from there on. I kept waking up because of the cold wind smacking against my face through the sleeping bag. If it wasn’t that, it was the noise from the downtown traffic or the lights from cars driving by. I think I may have gotten a few hours of restless sleep until about 5:00 am when I saw that many of the other participants were up and enjoying a cup of hot coffee and baked goods. That’s it. I was done too.

The temperature had really dropped by then and I was literally shivering as I tried to put my sleeping bag away. My shoes (which I was grateful were still there) were icy cold. I could not help but reflect on what it would be like to live like this, night in and night out. The event ended at 6:00 am with some parting thoughts and more opportunity to reflect on the experience.

As I headed back home, I passed a number of people sleeping on the streets. This time, I saw them as fellow human beings — not just objects on the side of the road. I sympathized knowing how cold they must have felt. I will admit that at times, I used to judge them harshly and thought they got what they deserved because of the bad decisions they made. I now know this is not true — no one deserves to be homeless.

Seventy percent of the youth who come to Covenant House come from abusive families. Fifty percent of them suffer from mental illness, and up to thirty percent had to resort to prostitution to survive on the streets. God only knows how I would have fared had I been the victim of these circumstances.

It’s true what they say: that you don’t know a person until you walk in their shoes. And as I reflect on the overall experience, I am astutely aware that my few hours on the street do not mirror a fraction of what a homeless person actually goes through. Even then, my biggest learning from this experience is knowing that homeless people are not weak people. They are actually very strong and resilient people.

Only a thin sleeping bag and piece of cardboard separated me from the freezing concrete that night. But whatever transpired in those few hours reignited a steely resolve and passion to do as much as I can to raise awareness and help alleviate poverty and suffering around the world.

Since Thursday night, my gratitude journal has grown well past the initial list I had on there. And in sharing my reflections with all of you, I hope you too are inspired to take action and support organizations and causes that speak to your desire to do good in this world and serve others less that fortunate than yourselves.”