A night in the life: a personal perspective

Sandra Suh, one of the participants in A Night in the Life, is a senior manager at Deloitte. She decided to participate in this fundraising event because she was interested in doing something for the community, but as she says, “I don’t run!” Here is her first person account of the evening.

I received an email from Family Services and saw a request for participants. When I saw it, I immediately turned to my husband and said, ‘Hey, is it okay if I do this?’ It was something different and I knew about Directions through Joanne Hausch [Family Services’ former Board Chair] and I knew about Family Services as I attended the Brighter Tomorrows Luncheon.

We started the night with a tour of the downtown streets accompanied by homeless youth – the group I belonged walked through the Granville entertainment district – and saw what they saw when looking at the sidewalks, the store fronts, the street corners, the recycling bins in the back alleys. Even the run-down buildings were different than what I would normally see walking down Granville Street. For example, recycling bins were a great source for their version of a mattress – cardboard. Unfortunately for these youth, more and more recycling bins have a lock on them.

One of the things the youth mentioned was the need for clean, dry socks. Socks are so important. One of the health problems they face is “street feet.” It’s when feet are exposed to damp, unsanitary conditions. They can’t remove their shoes because their feet will swell up and they can’t get their shoes back on. Now I know what I’ll be doing for Christmas: starting my own little sock fund for donations.

After the tour, we ate dinner at Directions, the same food served to youth that night: a hot, filling lentil soup with peanut butter toast. Directions keeps the meals simple as all of the food served is paid for with donations, including breakfast, dinner and snacks, as well as the packed lunches given to youth working at SYJA, Directions’ job readiness program.

We then participated in a simulation activity run by homeless youth where we were given a profile and had to get three meals, housing, and income. I was Melissa, a 16-year-old female who ran away from an unstable home environment with an abusive stepfather. Melissa did not have an easy life. A simple thing such as getting an ID was the most complicated task and being under aged, I had no authority on my own. I was not allowed to sign any papers, not even get released from the cops when I got caught ‘loitering’ on the streets. No one listened to what Melissa had to say. Working through the system was convoluted, everyone was skeptical dealing with homeless youth, and getting access to the limited resources available such as a social worker was a real challenge. And shelters can be even more dangerous than the streets at times.

After the simulation activity, it was bedtime. We hit the sidewalk, padded the concrete with cardboard and slipped into our sleeping bags. We did have someone stay up all night to ensure we were safe. But you don’t really sleep; I had a couple of hours of sleep. I dozed off but it’s not a good sleep and was not rested. I was constantly on guard.

Throughout the night, I heard our “night guard” answer questions to inquisitive passersby, mostly past clients of Directions. But sadly, for many others who walked right past our group, it was business as usual for them, just a bunch of homeless people sleeping on the streets. We were invisible.

The highlight of the A Night in the Life event for me was listening to the youth sharing their stories and insights. The youth I met at the event were smart, outspoken and were critical thinkers. They knew they had barriers and challenges to overcome, many in the form of mental illness, but they had a strong desire to get better and reinstated into society. This experience provided me an opportunity to get to know these youth as individuals, with a name, a face, a personal story, and dreams.

Directions Youth Services doesn’t only provide a hot meal, a warm shower, or housing information to homeless youth showing up at their door. They aim to develop trusting relationships with these youth. They know that without relationships, they cannot help these kids. One of the youth facilitating the event is living proof of this. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Directions. I am alive today thanks to a Directions staff who saw me in a back alley on his way home after his shift, picked me up and stayed with me until he saw me checked into detox 8 hours later.”

When you see the youth there, you see that they comfortable in that space, more relieved, less on their guard. Staff develop relationships with the youth and that’s very different from ‘come and I’ll give you a bed for tonight.’