Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Asleep on the job OK for this crowd

Fundraiser helps those living on street

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I'm going to take a wild guess you have never slept out at the corner of Portage and Main.

This is probably because of a variety of reasons, such as the fact you have a lovely home and a comfortable bed and, if you do go camping, you prefer something a little more picturesque and a lot less noisy.

It's the same with me, but this morning, for the second straight year, I woke up cranky, confused and cold after an evening spent trying to sleep under the stars on a patch of grass in a courtyard near the historic corner.

I joined about 100 community and business leaders huddled together in sleeping bags as part of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's third annual CEO Sleepout, which supports employment programs for the homeless, such as Siloam Mission's Mission: Off the Streets Team.

For the record, it's not about pretending to be homeless for a night. It's about shining a spotlight on, and raising cash for, a crucial issue by giving some high-profile Winnipeggers a tiny taste of what the city's most vulnerable citizens deal with on a daily basis.

You didn't ask, but one of the highlights for me comes in the wee hours when, after finally nodding off, you are blasted awake by what sounds like a battle between giant alien robots but is, in fact, waste-removal trucks emptying huge metal garbage containers located frighteningly near the spot where you are resting your sleepy little head.

Last year, I was startled awake and, with several gallons of adrenalin shooting to my brain, looked over at CJOB's Richard Cloutier, who had the misfortune of sharing the same lumpy patch of lawn.

"Did you hear that?" I croaked at Richard, whose exhausted expression was not unlike the one I frequently see on my wife's face in the morning.

"No, Doug, I didn't," he grunted. "Your SNORING drowned it out!"

I suspect he was kidding around in a light-hearted manner, but that is not the point. The point is all the money raised from the sleepout goes to the BIZ's Change for the Better campaign, which helps get people off the streets and into decent housing and jobs.

Speaking of money, the original fundraising target was $150,000, but online donations topped that mark on Monday, so the BIZ upped its goal to $175,000, which was exceeded early Thursday. Now, it's hoping to raise $200,000 this year.

Jason Syvixay, head of public relations and strategic initiatives for the BIZ, believes getting the city's top CEOs to cuddle up in the cold has warmed some hearts and opened some wallets.

"There's a heightened awareness among the public and the corporate community," Syvixay said, stressing donors can still help the cause by visiting www.changeforthebetter.org.

"The donations aren't always huge dollar amounts. They may only be $5 or $10, but they all make a difference."

Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown BIZ, said it's not just about raising cash; it's also about raising awareness of the corporate community's role in solving the crisis.

"Winnipeg CEOs and community leaders need to tackle homelessness together," Grande said. "Governments and non-profits on the front lines can't solve this issue alone. The private sector has a stake and responsibility to push this issue forward."

It's a message at least one downtown business owner and sleepout participant has taken to heart.

"People on our streets deserve a good life, a permanent stable home, and supports," said Ari Driver, owner of Perfume Paradise on Vaughan Street and head of the BIZ's panhandling and homelessness committee.

"Thirty-thousand people still sleep on the street every night in Canada," Driver said. "And approximately three million Canadians live in poverty, have experienced homelessness, or have come close to it.

"I tell my friends and family all the time that homelessness can happen to anyone. Just look in the mirror. We are only one paycheque or one domestic dispute away from ending up on the streets."

Which is why, before going back to bed, I'm leaving you with three important reminders:

1) The sleepout is over, but there's still time to donate;

2) We ALL have a responsibility to help;

3) There's no way I snore that loud!

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2013 A4

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