November 15th, 2012, was a day I’ll never forget. The workday kept me so busy, as it usually does, that I didn’t even have time to think about what I was going to be doing that night: sleeping on the rat-infested streets of downtown LA’s skid row.
This was all part of a program put on by Covenant House called “Sleep Out.” It had been introduced to me by my wife and Sister Margaret, a long-time friend of ours, a few months earlier during a benefit for the Weingart foundation. The event, which takes place nationwide once a year, has community and business leaders sleep outside in support of Covenant House’s mission and to raise awareness and funds that will help get homeless kids off the streets.
The great thing about Covenant House is that it’s not just about giving kids safe shelter, a hearty meal and a warm bed. It’s about striving to get every kid that passes through their doors onto a path that will benefit them in the future, and developing self-empowerment. When the idea of sleeping outside in support of Covenant House’s efforts was presented to me, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Building up to the day, I had raised money and spoken to the agency about what I was going to be doing. But on the day of, I realized I hadn’t really had much time to consider how I really felt about it.
“ It didn’t hit me until I got to Covenant House with nothing more than my sleeping bag and the clothes on my back. It was then that I finally realized that the cold, hard ground I was walking on was going to be my bed that night.”
The thought of being out there pretty much alone–sirens blaring, far-off screams, rats and raccoons skittering about, not to mention the possibility of something going wrong and being defenseless–was scary. But once I got inside Covenant House, these fears and concerns were quelled by what happened next.
There were about thirty of us in total, a small number when you consider the thousands of companies and leaders that are in the nearly 4 million-person city of Los Angeles. We got in, gathered around and prepared ourselves for what we figured was going to be a brief talk about how everything was going to work, but we were wrong. What happened next showed me exactly what this whole thing was about. Several of the kids who were part of Covenant House told us their stories. The courage it must have taken to talk about what was anything but an easy path that landed them in this house was astonishing. I won’t go into detail, but on hearing what it was like for these kids, who every night did what I was going to be doing for one night, not knowing when it would end for them, made me feel that doing this was the least I could do.
After hearing more stories and talking to the kids more about their lives and journeys, we went outside. I set up my bed under a tree, a location that I picked based on the advice from one of the kids who, it saddens me to say, was experienced with such decisions.
“You really don’t understand this until you experience it.”
I set up my bed, closed my eyes… and it began to rain. This was going to be tough. I set up some cardboard over my head and got a few winks, falling asleep to the sounds of rain pattering on my cardboard box and rats and raccoons trying to seek shelter in the tree above and on the ground around me. Before I knew it, I woke up. Stiff, sore and a little frazzled, I packed up my stuff and headed home. Home. Knowing that I had one and that my family, a shower, fresh clothes and the rest of my life was waiting for me after all this, had helped me get through the night. The kids I did this for don’t have that luxury. It was a humbling realization.
You really don’t understand this until you experience it. We walk by homeless people all the time. We become so jaded that we don’t really stop to think about their lives, what it must be like. It’s not until you experience it first hand that you get a glimpse, and a small one at that, of what this kind of life must feel like that you begin to understand.
So why did I do this? It wasn’t just because of the appreciation the kids felt seeing us, or to say that I had actually done something instead of just talking about it. It was to re-energize the idea that fueled this agency and the philosophy that the Defiance Club was built upon—the idea that we can take on our fears and conquer our goliaths. Action is what makes change, and by being brave you can overcome life’s obstacles to do great things. Money can change these kids’ lives for a small amount of time, but when they realize that they are the ones who have the power to change their lives and they act on it, great things can happen.
As a business leader, sleeping outside helped to show these kids that they matter and that people are willing to help them on their journey. Life is full of challenges, but it’s what you do to stand up to them and overcome them that creates real change. I feel that every single one of the kids at Covenant House has already taken their first step toward doing that, and that is exactly why I chose to sleep on the street for a night.