On a cold November evening, Chief Mark Saunders slept outside with only a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard to gain a sense of what homeless youth face on the street.
The Chief, along with 70 other business and community leaders, was participating in the fourth annual Covenant House Sleep Out, which brings together executives from across the city to sleep out in the cold to raise awareness and funds for the non-profit organization.
“I don’t like being in the cold, but I am here tonight because I truly understand the importance and valuable work that Covenant House does,” Chief Saunders said, of the Sleep Out that raised $1 million.
“Last night was only a small glimpse of the hardship homeless kids can face on the street,” said Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House, who also slept out.
Participants gathered first to hear about the work Covenant House does and their new programs including building transitional housing and a residence for survivors of human trafficking.
Human trafficking in Canada, in particular, forcing young people into the sex trade, was discussed during presentations during the Sleep Out.
From a policing point of view, Chief Saunders explained that, while historically underage prostitution had existed in the city, with the introduction of the internet, another layer hiding human trafficking and finding victims online emerged.
“The reality was that it was growing and growing and, when the digital world came in, there was another layer hiding human trafficking within the communities and that blew things way out of proportion,” said the Chief. He added that human trafficking in Toronto is a multibillion dollar industry and not something that happens internationally as most people think.
He spoke of creating awareness on human trafficking in the country so that more people are able to recognize it for what it is.
“The more people who are aware of human trafficking in Canada, the more chance we have of succeeding in beating it. It is a crime and it is hidden in plain sight. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you don’t see it,” said the Chief.
He congratulated Covenant House for creating a victim maintenance program that allowed for a higher conviction of human traffickers in the past year.
“We can arrest hundreds of people but, if there is no adequate victim maintenance, we fail… It was Covenant House’s involvement that made it successful because they were doing their victim maintenance piece because, if they had not been doing that, we would not have had our conviction rate because those victims would have left and been re-victimized again,” the Chief said.
The maintenance program helps those transition from the sex trade to a normal life by getting proper medical care, social assistance, government identification, emergency shelter or long-term housing.
“Covenant House is an invaluable service for us,” said Constable Peter Brady of the Human Trafficking Enforcement Team in the Sex Crimes Unit. “We partner with places like Covenant House because they have professionals who can help victims of trafficking.”