Picture this: You are 16 years old, sleeping out on the streets without proper food, clothes or shelter to get you through the night. All you have is a piece of cardboard, a blanket if you’re lucky, and an inkling of hope that you will wake up safely the next morning.
This is what PCL Toronto Senior Vice President and District Manager Bruce Sonnenberg was thinking about on Nov. 18, 2021, when he slept outside on the streets of downtown Toronto in support of homeless, trafficked or at-risk youth.
For the eighth year in a row, Bruce joined more than 70 business leaders from across the Greater Toronto Area in Covenant House Toronto’s Executive Sleep Out. The immersive experience allows participants to see first-hand the harsh realities that homeless youth face daily while giving them the opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life. Prior to the signature event, participants raise funds through a month-long campaign that helps Covenant House give young people the hope and confidence they need.
Each year, Covenant House hosts a dinner to kick off the event where participants have the chance to meet young people who use the organization’s services. When a PCL colleague first introduced him to the organization in 2014, Bruce wasn’t sure what to expect at the dinner. Little did he know how much it would impact him.
“I remember the first dinner I had with the youth at Covenant House. They were invited to share their personal stories and connect with all of the participants,” Bruce said. “I sat through all of their testimonials and heard the impact that Covenant House had on these children. That experience gave me an entirely different perception of what homelessness actually was.”
Year after year, Bruce continued to meet and listen to the brave young people who have persevered through uncontrollable circumstances and made lives for themselves. This year, he listened as a man virtually shared his story about how an abusive childhood led to him becoming homeless at a young age. This man recalled his experience panhandling in the streets of Toronto in the early 1970s and explained how he came to the realization that something about his situation had to change before he was hit with the worst. Taking a dime that a passerby offered, he decided to call for help. This realization started him on his path to recovery. Just four years later, this man — Frank O’Dea — had co-founded Second Cup Coffee Co.
Frank O’Dea’s story is one of many Bruce has heard over the past eight years. Some were just as positive as Frank’s, while some were heartbreaking. Hearing these testimonials only fueled Bruce’s desire to share them and show his colleagues the impact Covenant House can have on young people in need.
“Networking events, parties, work — I talk about Covenant House and try to share the stories I’ve heard wherever I go. I’m known as the Covenant House guy,” Bruce says. “I come back from the Sleep Out and tell my wife so much about the stories I’ve heard that she is now a volunteer.”
On the night of the event, following the virtual dinner, Bruce found himself staring up at the iconic TD Centre — a PCL Toronto revitalization project that he had been a part of — with just a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard. Over the years, Bruce has learned how to find a good spot to settle for the night and to make sure he is equipped with two pieces of cardboard. While some participants struggle to sleep, Bruce has figured out a schedule for the night: stay awake until midnight and try to sleep until at least 5 a.m. During that time, he reflects on the blessings in his life.
“If I look at the job, family and upbringing I have, I couldn’t be happier. I’m blessed to be in the fortunate situation that I am,” Bruce explains. “It’s not the same for them and it’s not their fault — it’s the circumstances they are in and the lack of opportunity they have. I participate in initiatives like the Sleep Out so that I can help provide opportunities for the people that need them.”
As he wakes up to the bustling sounds of the city, Bruce is relieved that the night is over. He feels happy that he’s able to do this, but can also go back home to his family and his everyday life. “Imagine doing this every night. Imagine constantly thinking about where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat. Some youth even fear for their safety,” said Bruce. “When I go back to the comfort of my bed, they go back to the streets.”
During his time with Covenant House Toronto, Bruce has joined Covenant House’s $40K Club, which recognizes participants who raise over $40,000 each year. In 2021, he surpassed his goal of $50,000, single-handedly raising a total of $65,853. Throughout the past eight years, his personal campaign has raised close to $380,000.
Homelessness is a reality for as many as 40,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 in Canada every year. In addition to abuse, neglect and family breakdown, young people struggle with mental health, finding affordable housing and getting stable, meaningful jobs.
Covenant House helps youth ignite their potential and reclaim their lives. As Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, they offer a wide range of 24/7 services to up to 300 young people each day. Since 1982, Covenant House has supported more than 100,000 young people.
Covenant House Toronto Executive Director Mark Aston says that participation in the Executive Sleep Out brings awareness to the complex issues of youth homelessness and sex trafficking. It shows a commitment to helping youth in need, no matter the circumstances.
“For 10 years, business leaders and executives have shown the youth at Covenant House that they deserve to feel safe, loved, cared for and so much more. It is a great privilege for me to witness the impact of their unrelenting support every day. Because of that support, these remarkable young people are able to work toward a better future,” Mark says.