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Hope of the Valley CEO Tries Life on the Street

 For four nights in December, during one of the coldest and wettest weeks of the year, two executives from Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission slept on the streets to raise funds for construction of the mission’s Trebek Center, which will offer 107 beds to people experiencing homelessness. 

Ken Craft, founder and chief executive at Hope of the Valley, along with the organization’s President and Chief Financial Officer Rowan Vansleve, started their excursion with backpacks containing a single hygiene kit and $5 each to use for the duration of their “C-Suite to the Streets: 100 Hours of Homelessness” initiative. The pair crafted video diaries of their excursion as they attempted to replicate the experiences of needing to find new sources for food, shelter and hygiene services each day, in an effort to raise an initial goal of $375,000 for the Trebek Center. By the end of the initiative, they exceeded the initial amount and extended their goal to fundraise $1 million.

Before the experience began, Craft issued a letter stating: “My living on the streets is not a publicity stunt.  It is an honest attempt for me to “walk a mile in their shoes,” to develop a greater sense of compassion, empathy and urgency to resolve the homeless crisis.” 

“The first night was really rough. … It nearly broke us because, when that storm hit, it really taught us that the weather is different for a homeless person than it is for someone who’s housed,” Vansleve said on the morning of the third day of the initiative, after a day and a half of stormy weather dumped record rains across the region. “Because for someone who’s housed, (weather is) just an inconvenience. But if you have no shelter, it is life changing.” 

The pair were dropped off near the Granada Hills Recreation Center on Dec. 13, spending their first night unsheltered under an overpass for the 118 freeway. They spent the next nights behind a trailer, along the side of a commercial building and inside a totaled vehicle abandoned in a parking lot. Over the course of their time-limited outing, they faced what they acknowledged were a fraction of the concerns that someone may experience while living unsheltered for an indefinite time. 

“We’re walking in with so much privilege. We know when this is going to end, we have a relatively good diet, we’re relatively fit and healthy. So many people on the street enter homelessness with a mental health issue or addiction issue, a health care condition,” Vansleve said. “We realize this is just a mile in someone else’s shoes, but their journeys are a never-ending marathon.” 

Still, they braved temperatures that reached freezing with wind chill and record-breaking rains, panhandled for money and food and described feeling the way strangers’ eyes passed over them instead of acknowledging them walking by. They each received a cognitive test the Friday prior to the experiment and were tested again at the end of the week.

At last count in 2020, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimated 41,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles, though some estimates are closer to 70,000. The Trebek Center, which is set to open next year, will offer 107 interim beds at its location in Northridge. Over the last year, Hope of the Valley has added more than 1,000 beds to its shelters in the Valley region.

“My fear is that we have normalized homelessness and encampments. And we don’t think about it anymore,” Craft said. “And so for us, part of it was, we wanted to put a spotlight on this, and I wanted us to feel uncomfortable.”

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