“Do you know anyone in the shelter?” the woman inside asks.
The group standing before her exchange glances, their hope deflating. When they respond that, no, they don’t know anyone inside, she replies, “I’m sorry, but we’re full.”
The door closes.
Luckily for the group in front of the closed door, this is a simulation. The “shelter” is a repurposed classroom, and those trying to find housing for the night are youth from the diocese of Algoma. But, while the rejection won’t mean having to spend the night outside in the cold, it does strike a chord.
“I know it was a simulation,” says one youth leader, “but I felt crushed.”
The simulation activity took place August 17 at the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering in Thunder Bay, Ont. Groups of Anglican and Lutheran teenagers were charged with finding a “temporary shelter” in an undisclosed location on the campus of Lakehead University, which hosted the gathering. Some groups made it into the shelter. Others, like the Algoma group, were turned away because of lack of space. And others never found the shelter, not having been provided any clues about its location—a reminder of how important dissemination of knowledge and resources is for those seeking housing.
The activity was planned to coincide with the launch of “Welcome…Home,” the current Anglican and Lutheran National Youth Project. The initiative, focused around issues of homelessness and affordable housing, will run from 2018 to 2020.
A new National Youth Project launches every two years as a joint project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). The two churches have been in full communion partnership since 2001.
At the 2013 Joint Assembly of ELCIC and ACC, the two churches committed to engaging issues of housing, both through advocacy and supporting their own agencies and programs that work with those experiencing homelessness or poverty.
“I think it’s important with the joint declaration between [ELCIC and ACC] to have these important conversations and to try…and make a difference,” says Tammy Kirkwood, director of youth and family ministry at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Ellerslie in Edmonton, Alta. “And to show that we can work together on these different things.”
As a member of the Program Committee for Youth Ministry (PCYM) of ELCIC, Kirkwood is part of the team that organizes the National Youth Project. They wanted to choose a topic that would resonate with youth across Canada, she says.
“We wanted something that the youth were going to be able to identify with,” she says. She adds that some youth at the gathering may have experienced homelessness, or know a friend who has, often in the form of “couchsurfing,” or staying with different friends for a few nights at a time.
Statistics provided alongside the “Welcome…Home” activity state that an estimated 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year, with 20% in the 16-24 age range. It also stated that more than 50,000 Canadians experience “hidden homelessness,” such as couchsurfing or having to sleep in a car.
Kirkwood says they hope the project will inspire youth to take part in local initiatives in their home communities, like volunteering with local shelters and educating their family members and peers.
The activity at CLAY was “eye-opening” for youth who had never directly experienced homelessness, says Kirkwood. “They’re more aware if they’re experiencing it than just reading about it. All of a sudden, they’re trying to find this homeless shelter and they’re not sure where it even exists. It’s like, you don’t know where, if you’re going to have somewhere to sleep at night.” She adds that even for homeless youth who couchsurf or stay with friends, there is a stressful uncertainty about not knowing whether one will have a safe place to spend the night.
The activity could potentially be adapted for smaller groups, Kirkwood says, for congregations to experience with their youth.
As part of the CLAY activity, youth also gave donations of socks to be distributed to Grace Place, a Thunder Bay street ministry.
Youth participants also signed postcards to send to their local members of Parliament and provincial representatives, urging them to support policy to alleviate the issue of homelessness and under-housing in Canada.
In their group, diocese of Algoma youth discussed what it felt like to be unsure of where one can stay for the night, and the feelings that arose after being told where they could and could not sit.
Early on in the simulation, while reading through instructions on how to complete the activity, the youth were asked to move and told they were “loitering.”
“Actually having to leave certain places was super unsettling,” reflects Jesslyn Emms. Emms, attending CLAY for the first time, is the Temiskaming deanery youth representative in the diocese of Algoma. “It’s like, ‘I was just sitting there minding my own business! I didn’t do anything!’ ”
The interactive element of the exercise was impactful, she says. “You got to feel what it was like.”
Another Anglican CLAY attendee, Charlotte Lilley, found herself on the other side of the simulation. Lilley, who worships at St. James Anglican Church in Cambridge, Ont., is the youth council representative for the ecclesiastical province of Ontario with justgeneration, the youth initiative of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). She ran one of the stations for the National Youth Project activity.
“It was kind of hard,” she says. “We had a limit on how many people we could put in that room that was being used as the shelter, so we had to turn some groups away. It was interesting to have that perspective as well.”
Lilley says that though homelessness is an issue “you hear a lot about, and maybe you see it,” it’s one that can be hard to understand without firsthand experience. “Not everybody has these experiences and is able to completely relate to it, just because of the nature of what all of that entails.”
Watching the simulation, she says, she saw youth “take these issues to heart because they’ve, to some extent, experienced…what it is.”
The previous National Youth Project, “Right to Water,” focused on water issues in Canadian Indigenous communities.