After a week on the streets of London, Heykel Kader said he had learned patience.
The personal trainer spent four years as a teenager on the streets. Now 36, he spent the holidays depending on the kindness of others to put a spotlight on homelessness, specifically in a harder-to-see younger group called “couch-hoppers.”
He said people who have been homeless all or most of their lives can’t be expected to change overnight, which is why it’s so important to intervene in the life of a 17- or 18-year-old at risk of losing their home.
“These people who are 40 or 45 have spent their whole lives getting to where they are,” he said on his last night out. “It’s a lot harder then to encourage someone to be a better them than someone (younger) who hasn’t established themselves in that lifestyle.”
Kader said when he left home at 15, he became a “couch-hopper,” staying in the living rooms of various friends. He said those at-risk teens are still there, which is why he decided to sell Raising the Roof toques to fundraise for YOU (Youth Opportunities Unlimited), which pulls young people off the streets with its “YOU’re Home” transitional housing program.
He wants to sell 700 toques by Feb. 5 2013.
“You never see them, they don’t necessarily stay at the shelters,” he said. “You don’t know that they’re homeless.”
He said the public doesn’t see that segment of the population until after they become a drug addict, or have committed a crime and enter the penal system.
“The fact that we have a group like YOU that pulls them off the street and gives them the counselling and support they need to be successful, I think is very beneficial and important.”
Kader was practically bursting with energy in his studio on Friday, Dec. 21, as he prepared to embark on his “personal journey.” On Thursday (Dec. 27) near its end, he took long pauses to answer several questions. Sitting in the Via Rail station downtown, he was suffering from a cold, possibly the flu, with reddened skin and chapped lips.
He said the biggest surprises were the random acts of kindness he encountered, and how serious the problem of homelessness is in the city.
“This community wants to help, but some of them just don’t know how,” he said. “(The homeless) do have places to go. There is the Mission, the Salvation Army and a number of different programs around the city.”
Kader said he was forced to spend most of his time downtown, walking as far as a Tim Hortons in White Oaks and back. He slept under bridges, in doorways and at the Mission, but didn’t get any rest on the eve of the Dec. 26 storm that dumped at least eight centimeters of snow on London.
“I walked for two hours to get here, to the train station, I was going to try and sleep here,” he said. “But when I got here the doors were locked. I just had to keep walking to stay warm. It definitely made me appreciate what I have a lot more.”
He said at the outset, he was hell-bent on helping other people he encountered on the street — he took the gift cards, money and food that friends and strangers who followed his prolific Twitter feed dropped off and re-distributed them. He had decided to never ask for food, and to work for any assistance he received, be it a shower, use of a laundry machine, food or a place to sleep.
But as the week wore on, he became tired and hungry, spending more and more of his time thinking about himself and how to get another meal.
“It’s very important to take care of yourself if you want to take care of other people,” he said. “All I could think about is how dirty I was, that I’m disgusting and that’s not like me. I’m usually very optimistic … which is why it was so amazing to see the great things people who are struggling are doing for each other. It was such a learning experience for me.
“This was the best Christmas I ever had in my life.”