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The Young and the Hidden

Network, Spring/Summer 2005

At first glance, the ‘Christmas’ ad for Covenant House, Canada’s largest youth shelter located in downtown Toronto, shows the classic advertising image of a teenager playing with her brand new computer. Then as you are drawn into the image more closely, you realize with shock that the happy face of the teenager is only a picture on the side of a cardboard box – empty and overturned, it now serves as the makeshift ‘bed’ for a street kid. The caption reads: ‘Not all kids want the same thing for Christmas.’

‘It’s the juxtaposition of the image that evokes the emotional reaction,’ explains Zak Mroueh, creative director for TAXI Canada, the advertising agency that created the ad campaign for free. ‘Computer Girl,’ along with a second ad created for the same campaign, has run for two seasons now, both in magazines and as a subway poster. The primary goals are to raise awareness and to encourage people to financially support the many services that Covenant House offers street kids. Responses to the Covenant House campaign have been positive.

The ad works so well, says Mroueh, because ‘it takes the ‘homeless person sleeping in a box’ cliché and twists it.’ For the viewer, there is a ‘bit of surprise and a delayed reaction’ to the sight of the homeless youth.

Working or living in downtown Toronto, as in many other urban centres across Ontario and Canada, means walking by people every day who are homeless and who are living on the street. The reality is that most urban dwellers ‘just tend to look the other way,’ says Mroueh. The Christmas ads for Covenant House catch our attention and have the effect of ‘creating a little bit of understanding.’ They help us recognize the humanity of the kids on the street.

Josie Do Rego, director of development and communications at Covenant House, agrees that the ads have a powerful effect on the viewer. ‘You think you know what you’re looking at, and then you realize it’s not what you think.’

Covenant House works with homeless youth, ages 16-21. In addition to providing a safe shelter to 120 kids every night, Covenant House offers a wide range of services to help youth turn their lives around. This could include continuing their education, finding work, or connecting them with mental health services. Covenant House also works to challenge our perceptions of homeless youth.

‘Dispelling the myths of why kids are on the street,’ says Do Rego, is a key strategy in their Christmas ad campaign. One of the most common myths is that ‘kids are on the street because it’s easier than following the rules at home.’ The reality is that ’70 percent of the kids on the street are there because of abuse or neglect at home.’

Overcoming public misconceptions about people and families who are homeless is a goal shared by Raising the Roof, a national charity dedicated to finding long-term solutions to homelessness. In 2004, Raising the Roof developed the ‘Hidden Homeless’ campaign, including a series of 15-second television ads, print ads for magazines, and websites with background information in both French and English.

The ‘Hidden Homeless’ public education campaign is specifically designed to address the misconception that all homeless people live on the street. In fact, according to their website, ‘four out of five homeless Canadians don’t live on the street.’ Instead they live in cars, sleep in temporary beds in church basements or abandoned buildings, or crash on somebody’s couch.

‘Homeless people may not be who you think they are,’ according to Jennifer Parnell, executive director of Raising the Roof. The campaign points out that children account for one in seven homeless shelter users across Canada. Many young people, immigrants and refugees are often ‘one paycheck away from eviction.’ Seniors living on fixed incomes are also vulnerable, due to increasing rents and taxes.

The ‘Hidden Homeless’ campaign reveals another surprising fact: ‘Even with full-time jobs, many Canadians are still homeless.’ The television spots show everyday encounters with a school bus driver, a waitress serving a coffee, a young woman working in a daycare – people we would not typically assume to be homeless. The ads show us that in our day-to-day life we talk and work with people whose homelessness may be ‘hidden’ to us because of our misconceptions.

The ‘Hidden Homeless’ campaign was created pro bono by Grey Worldwide, an international advertising agency, and supported by Direct Energy and ecentricarts, a website development company. Media time was donated for the television ads by Global Television, CBC, and other major networks. FlareTime, and Toronto Life, as well as a variety of French-language magazines, donated space for the print ads.

Media campaigns about homelessness, in addition to educating us and raising our awareness, can inspire us to action. Parnell received responses from people who said that the ads ‘really got my attention, made me stop and think.’ They also said they ‘made me want to do something, to get involved.’

Detailed information can’t be conveyed in a 30-second television spot or magazine ad, but viewers can be encouraged to find out more online. The ‘Hidden Homeless’ website, for example, links back to the main Raising the Roof site, where visitors will find a list of ’10 things you can do to help.’ Suggestions include volunteering for a local charity or community group to assist the homeless, advocating for affordable housing initiatives, or starting a local rent bank. The main message is that ‘there are solutions.’

To help individuals and groups connect, Raising the Roof has published an online directory of more than 600 organizations that work to reduce and prevent homelessness in communities across Canada. The directory is part of the Shared Learnings website, a bilingual, one-stop information hub offering practical tools, news, and profiles of homelessness initiatives.

These public education campaigns are the first steps for making a change. Raising the Roof’s Parnell says that when people learn more about the real face of homelessness, ‘a light goes on that leads to a real desire to get involved.’


For more information about Covenant House, visit www.covenanthouse.on.ca. The ‘Hidden Homeless’ television and print ads are available online at www.hiddenhomeless.ca. Visit www.raisingtheroof.org and www.sharedlearnings.org for more information about homelessness.


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