02/23/2017 01:37 EST | Updated 02/23/2017 01:37 EST

What I Learned From Spending A Cold, Dark Night 'Homeless'

By Chris Ballard, MPP for Newmarket-Aurora

A few winters ago, I spent one extraordinary night wandering the streets of York Region, experiencing first-hand what homeless youth from our community go through every night.

I participated in the second annual 360°Experience, where community leaders spend a bone-chilling winter night on the streets, each reenacting real life 360°kids client scenarios. Organizers wanted us to better understand what homeless youth in York Region face every night, and to raise funds for a new youth shelter. It was a night I won't forget.

dark street winter walk

(Photo: Omer Rorhon via Getty Images)

That night, I enacted a scenario faced by a 17-year-old single mom with a baby -- a temporary, 12-hour glimpse at the inescapable challenges that define her daily life. With trepidation, I set out to live a single night as she might, in search of a safe place to get some rest, baby in tow. It was -22 degrees Celsius and the wind was picking up as I headed to my first stop of the evening, the only shelter in York Region that could take us in that night -- the Blue Door Shelters for families at Leeder Place on Highway 11, north of Newmarket.

Between 300 and 500 youth do not have a home each night in York Region. 360ºkids provides services to over 5,000 children and youth across the region annually, helping them with their overall health and development, and lifting them out of crisis and into a place of safety and stability. Sadly, with limited shelter space, many are forced to walk the streets at night trying to stay safe and warm.

That night, I was shadowed by two volunteers to ensure that I and my partner didn't freeze to death. A welcome safety net, but also a painful reminder: I'm pretty sure in real life, no-one shadowed the 17-year-old mom and her baby I was pretending to be. Clutching two bus tickets and only $3 to buy a hot coffee or two, I set out to Newmarket Station, only to learn upon arrival that there was no bus that could take me to my shelter destination -- a five-kilometre walk up Highway 11 in the dark and cold. An off-duty security guard took pity on me and drove me to the shelter on his way home. I hope the 17-year-old mom and her baby would have been so lucky.

dark bus stop

(Photo: Badahos via Getty Images)

Safely inside the warm and bright facility, I learned about Blue Door Shelters, serving York Region's homeless since 1982. In 2016, Blue Door Shelters provided more than 93,000 meals and close to 31,000 nights of safety to homeless people and families in York Region. I'm told that shelters in York Region turn away thousands of people because they lack capacity.

So, leaving the shelter, I faced a one hour slog south along Highway 11, in -30 degrees Celsius cold, to the bus stop. There are no sidewalks. Thick, uneven ice was underfoot. Lighting was minimal. Cars whizzed by dangerously close.

I spent the remainder of the night moving from coffee shop to coffee shop, in search of warm places to while away the hours until morning. As a middle-aged white guy, I was allowed to stay as long as I wanted. I know many young people would be kicked out, and they'd have to keep moving, in search of the next coffee shop, all-night restaurant, bank foyer or other warming haunts to provide reprieve from their all-night search of refuge from the cold.

I wonder about the 17-year-old mom and her baby, whose nighttime trip in search of shelter I reenacted.

That night, I was struck by how tough and resilient the youth are who face this life, without the support of family or community. I can understand why some turn to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain and escape the hardship of life on the street. In the morning, as the doors at 360°kids Home Base opened and the smell of a hot breakfast wafted out, I celebrated my survival. The joyful relief was short-lived; we are asked who wants to spend another dark, cold and lonely night trudging from shelter to shelter, that night, and the night after -- like many young people must. It is a sobering moment.

Our night raised money for the Youth Hub operated by 360°kids, a multi-service complex on Yonge Street in the heart of Richmond Hill. It's designed to support youth through their transition from homelessness to independent living, including youth from Aurora and Newmarket. Opened in March of 2016, it is the only facility of its kind in York Region, and home to the only co-ed emergency and transitional housing for youth south of Sutton and north of Toronto.

When I'm out late now, I pay special attention to the young people in the coffee shops. Do they have a place to call home? Does someone care for them? Finally, I wonder about the 17-year-old mom and her baby, whose nighttime trip in search of shelter I reenacted. I hope they face a better future.

Chris Ballard is MPP for Newmarket-Aurora, and Ontario's Minister of Housing, responsible for the province's Poverty Reduction Strategy.

His community office is located at 203-238 Wellington St. E., Aurora. Phone: 905-750-0019.

This year's 360ºExperience takes place on March 2-3. To donate click here

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