'Think about how cold you are': St. John's fundraiser has donors walk in the shoes of homeless youth

The Coldest Night of the Year walk in St. John's took participants on a 2.5-kilometre loop around the downtown core. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
The Coldest Night of the Year walk in St. John's took participants on a 2.5-kilometre loop around the downtown core. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

While many likely avoided the freezing temperatures over the weekend, over 300 people came together in St. John's on Saturday to brave the cold for a good cause.

They walked the streets of the downtown as part of Coldest Night of the Year, an annual fundraiser organized by non-profit organization Choices for Youth that helps raise awareness — and money — to fight youth homelessness.

For Katie Keats, fund development and communications manager for Choices for Youth, it seems only fitting that the event took place on a day with a wind chill that made it feel like –23 C.

"That is exactly the purpose of this event, is to get out, to be cold," said Keats.

"It's really mind-blowing when you think about it. You're out here for 20 minutes, think about how cold you are. Some young people don't know when that is going to end."

Coldest Night of the Year was started in Ontario in 2011 and has grown to 182 walks across the country, with a total of almost 37,000 walkers.

Locally, Choices for Youth started holding the event in 2014. For the 10th walk in St. John's, a total of 271 walkers and 52 volunteers participated, raising over $68,000 as of Sunday — exceeding this year's goal of $50,000, and bringing the total raised since 2014 to over $380,000.

The money, said Keats, goes toward the organization's outreach centre in downtown St. John's, providing youth experiencing homelessness with support, hot meals, showers and internet access — on average about 1,000 to 1,300 every year.

"In the last couple of years in particular, we've seen those numbers stay kind of steady but also the challenges that young people are coming to us have been compounded. The pandemic hit everybody hard as an individual," said Keats. "Those challenges of young people actually just, those barriers keep climbing."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

It's a problem many people aren't aware of, said Keats.

"When you think homelessness, a lot of people think people you see visually. But actually here in St. John's, we do have some of that, but I think that a lot of it is also hidden," said Keats.

"That could be people who are staying somewhere because it's shelter and maybe it's not the best place for them. Maybe it's a bit unsafe but it's better to be there than not really know where to go. It could be people sharing couches with their friends. So, a lot of the homelessness that we here see, some people may not think it's an issue but it is in fact very much an issue."

Keats is grateful for all the support the organization has received over the years — from sponsors, staff, walkers and volunteers alike.

Jacob Martin is one of the volunteers and on board for the third time, acting as a route marshal.

Martin started volunteering with the fundraiser in 2019, believing in the cause it supports.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

"I was 18 years old and still kind of connecting more on the emotional side with the Choices for Youth mission statement and stuff like that, and wanting to help out the vulnerable population," he said.

"Being from St. John's, I guess we get to hang around downtown and see the impacts of what the cold weather can do — the closing of the sidewalks and the reduction of public space is a big issue and, of course, the dropping temperatures affect some people more than others."

The atmosphere among the volunteers, said Martin, is "energetic".

"A lot of people are really excited to participate," he said. "As long as the weather's cooperating, which today it is... it's cold, but that's all part of it. So, it's a good way to spend a few hours."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

While he mainly focused on staying warm during the event, he said, the cause of the fundraiser was in the back of his mind.

"The point that it's trying to prove and the attention that it's raising to specific issues, which is just that some people are so much more vulnerable to these conditions than other people," said Martin.

"At the end of this, we do get to go home and warm up. And that's not an option for everybody."

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