The amount of work within a typical 5 days in University usually involves a decent amount of planning, organization, working and collaboration, and is enough to make anyone stress. Try living for 5 days in the cold, warmth, snow, rain, sun all while being outside your school, in clear view of the 18,000 students who populate it. Try having to go to all classes, keep up with homework and be awake enough to still be a student, all without having a proper shower. Try devoting every minute of 5 days to seeing what it’s like to be homeless, in an attempt to raise money for an organization that helps both homeless and disadvantaged individuals in your community. Try doing all that, while sleeping on cardboard, with people you don’t know, while the people you do know, only stop to say hi before continuing on with their day. About 20 students did it. Take a read into the 5 most cold- yet heartwarming, days of their year…
n order to experience a full “5 Days” of homelessness, certain rules had to be mandated to make the experience all the more real, rather than a simulation. “We slept on the sidewalk outside with the intentions to raise awareness of homelessness. We invited people to come to us, and our goal was to raise monetary and non-perishable donations. We could only eat the perishable food that was donated. We couldn’t use technology; if you weren’t doing homework or in class you had to be outside” explained Caleb Regier, a third time 5 Days sleeper studying Human Geography.
His sister, Madeliene Regier explained that the use of technology was also limited to the sleepers, “If you had your computers to do homework, you could go in. You weren’t supposed to be on your cell phone at all.”
Even that might be enough of a challenge for some. But the lack of technology was just an adjustment made by the sleepers, they didn’t seem to care about the lack of connectedness. Their connectedness to each other was obvious. The camaraderie was undeniable. What looked like life-long friends embarking on a social experiment was really a group of once strangers, all working together for one cause. While theirs was an attempt to raise money for Community Care, they came together and established their own sense of community.
This sense of togetherness was echoed by several members of the Brock University, who stopped by throughout the week with perishable and non-perishable food items, extra blankets, gloves, coffees, Tupperware’s of warm scrambled eggs and pancakes were dropped off to the sleepers on a daily basis. One student even offered the contents of her entire lunch bag, which was stocked for her anticipated 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. day. In short, the week was full of random acts of kindness from community members.
As far as monetary donations, some students dug for change while other intentionally brought money, bringing the impressive grand total of $6,000 by the end of the week.
Each time a coin or bill was dropped into the donation buckets, a little bit of encouragement came with it. While it wasn’t exactly the polar vortex conditions we have become accustomed to this winter, there were definitely some less-than-comfortable nights, where the wind-chill made it feel like -25 degrees.
“A few nights were okay, others we would all wake up and just be shivering from the conditions. Overall, the nights were definitely more difficult than spending full days outside, but we all knew we had homes waiting for us at the end of the week”, explained Tabitha Lash, a Social Sciences student.
Of course, the week that students would commit to sleeping outside, the weather would take a turn for the worst and the amount and ferocity of Wednesday’s storm made Brock University close by 1:00 p.m.
“We wanted to stay outside, and we tried to stay outside, but officials from risk management told us we had to go in or the program would be shut down” explained Lash. The sleepers then took shelter in the first floor of Plaza, stayed occupied by playing games- Frisbee, cards, survivor-like competitions of who could stand on a chair on one foot the longest.
Anne Clement, Child and Youth studies student,
retold the experience of being the only people still at the school with a mega-watt smile.
“As soon as the snow died down, a few people went back outside and immediately everyone else followed. We were all so excited to get back out there and back to what we had intended to do”. Clement also said that day was the day she didn’t stop laughing.
All games aside, there was plenty of negative feedback from passerby’s and from social media enthusiasts. Although the kindness from the community was definitely more fluent and worthwhile, the sleepers noticed some negative reactions from those passing by on their way to class.
“It was mostly people just not looking at you and pretending you weren’t there. On the internet, a lot of people saying we were trying to simulate homelessness” explained Lash.
“We knew that people would think that way, and it’s unfortunate. We know we are affluent Brock students, but we’re trying to show people that in our city, homelessness exists”, explained Caleb.
“Our goal was to raise awareness about homelessness, and to bring the issue to the student’s attention. Most of all, we wanted to get people thinking” said Lash.
Madeliene agreed; all she wanted to do was bring forth conversation, “When I had these conversations I asked people if they knew that there were homeless people in St. Catharines and most of them said no. If we can raise awareness, get people thinking, and then get those people caring; that’s all we want to do.”
Compared to last year, the sleepers engaged much more with the students and faculty of Brock. The 2013 5 Days crew were much more fixed and for their week they became an installation feature of Brock, inviting students to come up and discuss. Even their bedding situations were much more lived in, as compared to the more transitional and daily changing of this year’s sleepers. This year, it was a different view of homelessness every time you looked. These sleepers were out in Market; could be seen standing under the Schmon Tower, and on Thursday, a mini-concert was held in Taro hall, in full busker style.
All of these efforts were an attempt to bring awareness of homelessness on campus. Being isolated on top of the Niagara escarpment, completely away from the downtown, Brock University rarely sees instances of homelessness, even though the Niagara region is one of the poorest area in Ontario. As compared to other universities, such as the University of Toronto or Ryerson University, it’s no unusual to pass individuals who are homeless.
Caleb had a very microcosmic instance of homelessness at the start of his week. “I fell asleep in plaza one night and got kicked out by a security guard. And even though he knew what we were doing, I still had to leave. I didn’t argue with him, I just had to move. I think that’s what homeless people experience most- a constant moving around and not being welcome in certain areas.”
However, this wasn’t the only instance of homelessness being shunned from the community.
“Some people would say they didn’t have any money, when you would see them at a bar just a few days prior. Or others would say they only have their debit or student card. People were buying St. Patrick’s day shirts, but couldn’t donate anything,” said Clement. “If every student donated a loonie, we would raise $18,000 to Community Care.”
It seems like an easy fix, but it’s difficult to get an entire community on the side of any cause, regardless of the issue. Regardless, many students did dig around in their pockets or backpacks to find a few dollars. Some people did go to an ATM and get money; some people did go to General Brock and pick up some non-perishables to donate, using what was on their Brock Cards.
By the end of the 5 Days, it was clear that this experience hit home with all of the students in some way. “None of us wanted to leave” said Madeliene. “This was such a compassionate group of people. If you were in class, people saved you food. If you didn’t have a blanket, one was shared. I didn’t have gloves at one point, but there was always someone who would lend me theirs for a while. I’ve never felt more supported.”
So what will these students take away from his week?
“I’ve learned that life is about talking to the person beside you; caring. It’s as easy as looking up when you’re walking in the hallways. Taking out your headphones. Even a smile goes a long way” said Madeleine.
“I’m going to want to make more friends. I think we have the tendency to isolate ourselves and as a result can feel very lonely. When we step outside our comfort zone, make friends and not look at our computer all night, life just gets better,” said Caleb.
“We’re people and we all have something in common. It’s something so simple to realize, but it makes the biggest difference in the world in regards to how we treat each other”, said Lash.
“I honestly just had the best week. I will never forget what I experienced” said Clement.
When asked what their definition of ‘home’ is now, a collected response of “community” was agreed upon. “If home is where the heart is, all of our hearts were out on that cardboard… where you have a community of people who look out for each other and care… it’s not necessarily a roof over your head, but that comfort of people around you.”
The question most likely to pop into anyone’s head after understanding what these sleepers did for 5 days: what were the sleepers’ plans for their first night back to reality? Mixed responses of, “Do homework…I have to work all weekend…I have to work at 9 p.m. tonight…I’m going to sleep…You can’t go from this to being alone, so probably be with friends all weekend” solidifying a yearning to stay within their newly formed community.
While each sleeper expressed their gratitude for the kindness from the community, it’s clear they have now come to understand how important it is to care for those who need it most. Let it be known that the final remarks from this interview were all heartfelt pieces of advice to readers, “Next year, don’t feel like we, as sleepers, take priority over the cause. We are fortunate enough to have resources to take care of ourselves, many people in our city don’t have the same. Instead of bringing us food, find items to donate to Community Care.”
For more information on 5 Days for the Homeless, visit, 5days.ca