An emotional night at the CEO Sleepout

By Bill Burfoot

On October 26th, close to 100 politicians, executives, community leaders, and media took part in the 6th annual CEO Sleepout outside the RBC Convention Centre.

The event, which was held in conjunction with the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, a 3-day conference held from October 25 – 27 which brought over 800 delegates from across the country, was about continuing conversations and to have community leaders and people with lived street experience together to find solutions in reducing homelessness in Winnipeg.

For myself, I felt ready for whatever the night was going to bring, mostly because I had a few weeks to prepare for the night. I pulled my toque and mitts out of storage, found my warmest hoodie and my biggest winter jacket. It turned out to be a cold, blistery night as the frigid winters Winnipeg has become accustomed to welcomed us with open arms, as temperatures dropped below zero, and the north win ripped through the streets. Just some of the things I feel I sometimes take for granted.

As we arrived, many people who live on the streets were lining up for the donated clothing, backpacks filled with various supplies, enjoying freshly delivered pizza, and frequenting the Salvation Army mobile unit which was there handing out hot coffee and soup to anyone who needed. Watching executives and people living on the street mingling and sharing experiences is what an event like is for.

The event itself has raised over $892,000 in six years. These dollars will go directly to support several social agencies in the Winnipeg community. That means 137 people with lived experience have been employed – adding up to over 70,000 hours on-the-job. Amazing numbers no matter how you look at them.

There were other events going on. Youth from the Broadway Neighborhood Centre’s Just TV program were on hand, displaying their talent with documentaries and music video’s they created about homelessness.  A sacred fire, which was kept lit during the entire three-day conference, was a meeting place for people looking to share stories, or just trying to warm up on from the night’s cold. I was fortunate enough to take part in a KAIROS indigenous blanket exercise, a teaching tool to share the historic and contemporary relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Close to 30 people took part in what was a really powerful experience, and one I won’t soon forget.

By the time the clock reached midnight, many participants had made their way to their spot on the concrete where they would spend the night. I made my way to my lawn chair, wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and began to watch a movie being displayed on the big screen just outside the Convention Centre doors. A few people who live on the streets had stayed to enjoy the movies and food and spent the night.

While sitting there, I couldn’t help but think if I’m really doing my part by being at the event. After all, I had just enjoyed a couple slices of pizza and was watching a movie on a big screen TV. Sure, I was outside, bundled up under my sleeping bag, and was experiencing the effects of the environment like everyone else, but I had time to prepare. I had all the warm clothes I needed to make sure I would be comfortable during the night. I knew I could leave at any time. I knew I was safe as security was constantly walking around the area. I knew once the night was over I’d be able to go home. For people living on the street, they don’t have any of that.

When the night was done, and I saw the totals of almost $900,000 had been raised in the six years of this event, I realized how great of an event this is to be a part of. Sure, it’s only one night. Can we get the full experience of someone who has lived on the streets for years? Of course not! But the conversation was continuing. The funds were still being raised. The media was covering the story. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for everyone involved and that person will tell another person, and so on and so on.

This wasn’t about sleeping outside and ending homelessness in one night. This wasn’t about thinking we can understand all the issues with homelessness by spending one night in their shoes. This was about bringing all sectors of the community together and keeps the conversation going. The event was about listening to the experiences of people who live on the street and trying to figure out solutions. It’s about continuing the awareness that homelessness in our city is a real problem.  As the weather gets colder, the needs for donations are needed more than ever. I encourage you to take a few moments and donate what you can. Whether it’s clothes, money, or time, every donation makes a difference.

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