BY TYLER COLLINS
Last Saturday, Halton charity Home Sweet Hope held its first “Sleep in Your Car” fundraiser at the YMCA of Oakville. More than 50 participants registered for the inaugural sleepover – after collecting pledges since June, each participant drove their car to the YMCA parking lot to sleep in overnight.
Home Sweet Hope organized the event to raise both awareness and funds for homelessness in Halton Region. The organization says families without a permanent residence may spend weeks or even months living out of their cars while moving between residences.
All proceeds from the event support the organization’s work in Oakville and surrounding area. The not-for-profit charity works with low-income, single-parent families become self-sufficient. Ongoing projects they oversee include education, providing affordable housing assistance, and skills development classes.
Michelle Pommells, CEO and President of Home Sweet Hope, envisioned the idea for the sleepover last fall. She says the fundraiser is about more than just raising money. “This gives hope and encouragement to those who are struggling or homeless,” says Pommells. “We’re helping them go from crisis to stability. With the funds tonight, families can really turn their lives around.”
She says the simulation is critically important. “We’re building awareness in a very affluent area [of Oakville]. Tonight we’re bringing visibility to what is often a hidden problem, but also showing people there’s something they can do.”
Pommells pointed out while it could be challenging to spend a night in a car, it’s nothing compared to living in one permanently. Most parking lots have strict rules about overnight usage – and many in downtown Oakville also charge parking rates by the hour.
“We need the community to come along,” says Pommells. “That’s absolutely what this is all about. The work we do is so people don’t get stuck, and this event is about the community saying they’re willing to help.”
The organization created a festival-like atmosphere, holding games and activities inside the neighboring YMCA’s gyms and hosting a barbeque dinner. Multiple bands played in the early evening, and a movie was screened outside after the sun went down.
But even with amenities and events, who would volunteer to sleep overnight in a parking lot?
While the environment was supportive and fun, participants did face some unexpected discomforts. The limited spaces in the parking lot meant nobody had free space between their cars. And early Saturday evening, the temperature was 34C with no wind. Despite the heat and crowds, Pommells confirmed “every registered participant showed up to sleep outside.”
The participants were as diverse as the vehicles they slept in. Families, co-workers, and local dignitaries made up the 47 registered vehicles for the night. Participants ranged from age 6 to 81, and while most slept as singles, there were several pairs and one family of four. The “deluxe accommodations” ranged from Volkswagen Beetles to renovated school buses.
One VIP sleeper was Rob Burton, the Mayor of Oakville. Originally invited simply to attend the opening ceremonies, he also agreed to sleep in the parking lot overnight. “We have a full spectrum of municipal programs,” says Burton, “but while it’s [the homelessness rate] below the provincial average, Oakville has 50 percent of the poverty in Halton.”
To prepare for the sleepover, he folded the seats of his family van. A friend of his donated an old mattress, and he brought his own pillow and a sleeping bag. “I have no idea the last time I used it,” he said. “I know it was cold. As a Queen’s Scout, I’ve been to every kind of camp.” He jokes, “I guess I got my camping in early.”
Later in the evening, while enjoying his dinner, he explained his personal conviction for participating. “We can have as good a society as we’re willing to work together to create. That’s my bedrock, and I think we have a pretty good community here.”
The tired participants were met with a harsh awakening on Sunday morning not unlike what true homelessness might be like. With the YMCA opening at 8 a.m., participants were instructed they had less than an hour to pack up and leave.
The event exceeded the $100,000 fundraising goal only two hours before the event began. Each participant was required to raise a $1,000 minimum before arriving on Saturday, with the participants themselves covering the difference.
Pommells and her organizing team met again on Monday morning to collect and process the final donations before announcing the total amount raised. On Saturday night, within $2,000 of their target, she said, “I have it on good authority we’ve reached and exceeded our fundraising goal.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Home Sweet Hope announced on the event’s website the event raised a total of $101,287. The all-female team from Genworth Canada won the prize for top fundraisers. Their team collected $14,560.
After achieving their goal and receiving such an enthusiastic turnout, will the charity return next year? With this year’s event such a success, Pommells certainly hopes so.
“We hope to make this an annual event,” she said Saturday evening. “The community is enjoying it, and we exceeded our goal. It’s pretty amazing to have this turnout.”
To learn more about the organization, visit https://www.homesuitehope.org.