Students sleep outside to raise cash for homeless youth

Critics laud the effort, question the experience

Five U of M students took to the elements last week to raise awareness and funds for local initiatives battling homelessness.

The U of M Commerce Students’ Association organized this year’s annual 5 Days for the Homeless campaign, a fundraiser that universities across the nation participate in to raise awareness and money for local charities.

The fundraiser supported Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY), a non-profit street-level agency that works to support homeless youth up to the age of 29 through a harm reduction approach.

The fundraiser is set up so five to seven volunteer students spend five days living in a camp set up outside UMSU University Centre (UC) and raise money through donations.

Quinn Desrochers, a fourth-year engineering student, said he has been involved with the initiative since his first year at the university.

“I’m in my fourth year now,” he said, “and I’ve been sleeping for three out of the four years and I think it’s just the best way I can help out and give back.”

Ashar Khwaja, a second-year student in the faculty of arts, is an international student who said he volunteered because he has experienced homelessness first hand. “I was homeless for a week. It was hard for me,” he said.

“It’s a good initiative for me,” he added, “and if it’s helping society, then why not?”

This year’s campaign ended early after the campers packed up Thursday afternoon due to concerns with the developing COVID-19 outbreak. The volunteers left behind several pallets and cardboard that caught fire just before 1 p.m. Friday, resulting in extensive water damage throughout UC.

No injuries were reported, and the total extent of the damage and cause of the fire are still being investigated, but it has been reported that a cigarette likely ignited the pallets.

“We are heartbroken by the fire and damages caused outside of UMSU University Centre,” said a Commerce Students’ Association release signed by three executives.

The association’s president, Tony Quach, said this is the first time there has been an issue with material left behind.

“We have done the 5 Days campaign for the last 12 years now and have never had any issues,” he said in an email.

“Each year, we clean up the sleepers area under UMSU University Centre and leave all pallets and materials in a pile that is then picked up by University of Manitoba physical plant. This was the case this year as well.”

Across campus in the University College Great Hall, facilitators of a Poverty Awareness and Community Action (PACA) workshop Wednesday expressed mixed feelings about the initiative.

Ray Troughton, a community volunteer with the event, lauded the effort to raise funds but said just sleeping outside doesn’t recreate the experience of homelessness.

I think it’s great what they’re doing with [5 Days for the Homeless], but they’re in a group,” he said.

“They still have social inclusion, they still have a social group — and you’re usually very alone when you are homeless.”

“The reality is different, but what they are doing is awesome,” he said.

While he said he didn’t want to attack anyone, he acknowledged the event tends to trivialize his and others’ real experience with homelessness and recalled that one camper was overheard saying they were “really excited about this coming up.”

“You’re not really excited when it’s really happening,” he said.

Kae Normandeau, a PACA assistant who co-ordinated the workshop, explained how, at age 18, both her parents passed away and she ended up homeless and was left to couch surf, sleep outside or squat in empty houses.

Normandeau said the fundraiser does amazing things for RaY, but emphasized that “When you’re a homeless youth, people won’t even make eye contact with you, let alone bring you food and water.”

“I think that the fundraising aspect of this is absolutely amazing and I do appreciate that these students are working to build their empathy and try to get some experience that they can use to do so,” she said, “but I don’t want people to mistake this for an actually real experience with homelessness.”

The volunteers outside UC acknowledged the criticism and Desrochers said the volunteers were lucky so many students brought donations, saying “We’re trying to get a small experience of what [homelessness] is.”

“It’s just a small taste,” he said. “We definitely know we are not at all homeless, we are temporarily displaced and in a good disposition. We have lots of support here.”

Khwaja called the initiative a “small gesture” that he hopes will at least raise awareness of homelessness to students who might not otherwise come across it.

“A lot of people don’t know about [homeless youth] and at the end of the day they turn a blind eye,” he said.

“So, what we do is provide a little bit of exposure, a little bit of friendliness so that the people who are actually passing by know that these things exist and […] you can actually support them.”

The fundraiser has collected $23,431 and continues until the end of March, including a silent auction. Quach said it is too early to consider what will happen with next year’s event but the group will be working closely with the university.