Freezing temperatures underline how Covenant House helps street youth

November 22, 2013 11:03 PM

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Jillian Harris was cold and uncomfortable in her sleeping bag, just waiting for the night to end so she could jump into her warm car and head to the Okanagan.

Harris was one of three dozen people sleeping on cardboard at the Vancouver Covenant House parking lot to raise awareness of the shelter for homeless youths, an event that took place in cities all over North America.

It’s one of many charitable acts the 33-year-old former Bachelorette undertakes and it might be her favourite.

“It’s a huge reality check,” she said. “I woke up tired and groggy. Imagine how I’d feel if I had to do that every day.

“I had decent clothes, a decent sleeping bag, someone I love (her boyfriend) beside me, a cell phone, my home to go to, a great meal beforehand.”

Covenant House began in Vancouver in 1997 with the motto of keeping homeless kids safe.

It offers beds, food and clothes to homeless kids aged 16-22, and teaches them skills, while holding them accountable.

A conservative estimate has 700 homeless kids on the street in Vancouver at any one time, most of them fleeing abuse or having grown too old for foster care.

“Most of these kids didn’t choose this path,” Harris said. “They have the added pressure of society looking down on them as homeless, ‘Go get a job’ kind of thing. It’s hard on their self-esteem, especially for girls.

“Many of these kids are bright and well-rounded. If I was in their position, I wouldn’t be well-rounded, I’d be a wreck.”

There are about 8,500 runaways a year in B.C., down from the 10,000 there were when Covenant House was set up, according to a couple of studies.

A third of them suffer from a mental illness, 70 per cent have witnessed family violence and half of them have addiction problems.

When they leave Covenant House and its 54 beds, 94 per cent of the kids say they benefited and almost half of them have found housing.

They’re not coddled,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Vancouver Whitecaps and a Canadian soccer Hall of Famer. “They get food and shelter and a chance to turn their lives around.


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