My Night in the Life

The last 3 months have been a whirlwind of learning. As the new Director of Directions Youth Services, I have taken a deep dive into the world of serving youth who experience homelessness. Overall, I am struck by the incredible resilience of the youth we serve and the dedication, compassion, and skill of the people working on the front lines during these incredibly difficult times.

Last week, I was appointed the Game Master at the Direction Youth Services A Night in the Life event. I welcomed and thanked everyone, gave instructions, and led debriefs of the various activities. I wasn’t a participant, but I did everything with my eyes wide open.

I had not planned to sleep outside during the sleepout portion at the end of the event, but as the evening progressed, it felt wrong for me not to join those who had committed (with hearts and dollars) to sleep on Burrard Street. I was not excited to do it, but grabbed a -20 degree sleeping bag and found a piece of cardboard that had been laid out by the Directions staff. The mood was quite jovial—those of us staying out were part of a club of sorts.

Our group of 18 settled down on cardboard, in sleeping bags, in front of the Directions drop-in centre and the friendly chatter dwindled sometime between 11:30 and midnight. I was warm and my belly was full after a good dinner prepared by Mette, our Kitchen Coordinator, and our fabulous volunteers. I felt safe since Ryan, the After-Hours Supervisor, sat outside watching over our sleeping bodies.

I woke often, the cement below me offering no comfort. The street was oftentimes noisy and those walking by sometimes spoke loudly. I was chronically disturbed until I got up at 4:15am. The day was not particularly productive. My final meeting, to review a program budget, was especially challenging.

My Night in the Life offered me the smallest glimpse of what the youth who access our services experience: their bellies are often empty; their sleeping bags may not be warm or dry; their safety is always at risk; and whenever they wake, their thoughts are probably never far from wondering how they will feed themselves in the hours ahead, how they’ll get money for the things they need, and where they will sleep when their bodies require rest. I went home that night to a long shower and cozy bed. A Night in the Life for our youth is just one of many.

This reality will keep me going when the budgets aren’t balancing and the workload is heavy. We’ve got work to do, and I’m very grateful to all of you who help us do it.

An addendum

While attempting sleep on Burrard, Mary, a Vancouver community member with lived experience of homelessness and addiction who recently secured supportive housing, spoke with our Centre Manager, Nicki.

Mary was an energetic storyteller, and as I lay on the ground, I wished she would not be that—at least not right then and there. Later in the morning, I learned that Mary was dismissive of our sleepout at first, thinking it disrespectful. Nicki explained what we were trying to achieve and Mary become an enthusiastic supporter. Mary returned later in the night and spoke at length with Ryan and gave him twenty dollars as a donation to A Night in the Life. Despite Ryan’s efforts to have Mary hold on to what little she had, she insisted on making the donation. It was an incredibly generous gift.

Early this week, Nicki wished to try and return Mary’s donation, knowing that she needed it, but instead, we learned that Mary died in the day or two following our event. The trauma and vulnerability we see is immeasurable, but so is the generosity and kindness. We’ll look to make sure future participants of A Night in the Life know about Mary’s contributions to our work. Rest in peace, Mary.

Marnie Goldenberg is the Director of Youth Services. A Night in the Life is a Directions-led fundraiser which gives Vancouverites a glimpse into the lives of youth experiencing homelessness. Directions Youth Services and Family Services of Greater Vancouver are incredibly thankful to the supporters and donors for helping us raise awareness and work towards ending youth homelessness.

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Entrance to Cardboard Vancity - Directions Youth Services