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By: Sophie Geffros

Someone you know has been homeless.

This can be hard concept to wrap your head around — if you’re lucky, homelessness is something that happens to other people, and we can only conceive of homelessness as what housing advocates call “street homelessness.” According to a 2013 report by the Wellesley Institute, for every individual identified as street homeless, another four are part of what advocates call the “hidden homeless” population.

Think of your high school friend who surfed couches when his parents kicked him out after discovering he was gay. Think of the sibling that struggles with addiction and is in and out of halfway houses. Think of the friend who confessed tearfully that she and her mother spent the summer in a women’s shelter after leaving a violent spouse. The majority of the homeless population is intermittently homeless, and therefore hidden. Even if you don’t know anyone like I just described, I promise you that statistically speaking you have worked with, or attended classes with, or been friends with someone who has been homeless. It’s not the kind of thing you talk about, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t present.

The Degroote School of Business’ “5 Days for the Homeless” both ignores these populations and gives a false idea of what street homelessness looks like. 20 percent of the street homeless population are youth 16-24, of whom at least 40 percent are LGBT and about 60 percent are Aboriginal. When surveyed by Covenant House, they identified the greatest risk to their lives to be physical and sexual assault while sleeping rough or in shelters. Spending five nights sleeping outside the Student Centre gives a false idea of what homelessness is, and is far safer than the conditions street homeless youth actually experience.

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It is good to raise money for charity. Nobody is denying that. But donating food to middle class students so they can pretend at homelessness borders on self-parody. If you have a genuine desire to alleviate suffering in the Hamilton community, donate your time or money directly to the Good Shepherd, or the Hamilton Dream Centre, or the Hamilton Community Core, or any of the dozens of other neighborhood food banks and housing programs that assist the vulnerable in our community. The campus OPIRG runs an excellent program called “Food Not Bombs,” and you can begin the process of helping them out without even leaving campus.

Programs like 5 Days for the Homeless appeal to us because they sanitize housing insecurity. They make us feel good about ourselves for caring, without having to be confronted with the unpleasant realities of homelessness. Advocates for the campaign will say that it raises awareness of street homelessness, but raising awareness for street homelessness is absurd. If you are honestly unaware that people are sleeping on the streets in our city, you are willfully ignoring the men and women sleeping rough by every downtown bus stop.

Spending five nights sleeping outside the Student Centre gives a false idea of what homelessness is.

I want to ask you a question: do you look at street homeless people when you see them on the sidewalk? How many of you are willing to donate your food and converse with the students aping at homelessness outside of MUSC, but ignore the man at the bus stop asking for change? How often do you justify not helping when you are confronted with the need by saying “well, they’re just going to spend it on drugs anyway?” How often do you willfully look away when you are confronted with suffering? Too many of us fail to recognize the humanity and dignity of others when confronted with their pain. We can all strive to be better at this. Pretending to understand a struggle that is not ours so that we can write heart-warming Facebook posts about what we’ve learned is not the way to go about it. The unkempt street homeless man who asks you for a dollar is just as human as the commerce student sleeping outside the student centre.

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