Everyone walking past Taro Hall last week no doubt saw the cardboard and sleeping bags laid out beneath the covered walkway and the students in bright orange hats sleeping outside for the week. The Five Days for the Homeless initiative, organized by the Business Students’ Association (BSA) raises awareness for homelessness and collects money and non-perishable food items that will be given to Community Care.
While I have nothing against fundraising initiatives for charities, nor question the motives behind those who participate in such initiatives, I do have issues with the branding of certain initiatives and the message they are sending.
I’m not arguing the good cause behind the initiative, but I’m skeptical of how much awareness it can truly bring. For the students participating, it can be a humbling experience to sleep outside, but how effective is it really, when they go back to their warm houses after a week, order a large pizza, and sit in front of their large, flat-screen TV’s watching Netflix?
The issue with homelessness is that for those actually in the situation, it is not a choice. People are driven into such helpless situations for a number of reasons, but it would be hard to find someone who willingly leaves everything behind for a life on the streets. A big part of being homeless is the disparity and hopelessness that comes along with being in such a situation. How can sleeping outside for a week truly raise awareness for the cause when they know that they have a better life that is waiting for them at any moment. It’s like camping with a piece of cardboard instead of a tent.
Not to mention that the student participants were extremely well clothed, with warm sleeping bags and blankets and a lot of donated food at their disposition. Whenever I saw one of the participants, they were in extremely high spirits, often walking around with a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks cup in their hand that a friend had purchased for them. A far cry from the ragged, miserable-looking homeless people I’ve seen huddled on one of the benches in the downtown St. Catharines bus terminal.
What this initiative reminds me of is a tourism phenomenon known as slum tourism, or alternatively, ghetto or poverty tourism. Slum tourism is the visitation of poverty-stricken areas, such as the slums in some of India’s cities, the Favelas in Brazil, or notorious neighborhoods such as the Bronx in New York City, by upper-class people who want to see the living conditions of the “common people”. After Hurricane Katrina, tours were offered to visitors of New Orleans to see the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest districts of the city and the one that was hit the hardest by the floodwaters.
Again, I’m not criticizing the motives of the people who participate in such tours, but I take issue with the fact that this is commoditizing an entire way of life and class of people. People don’t choose what social class they belong to, it is a label imposed on them. Now for those in the lower classes, looking with envy or even anger at those above them, how degrading must it be when those exact people come by and look at their lifestyle out of sheer curiosity to find out what it’s like to live with less money?
Speaking of commoditization, every participant in the initiative was given a fluorescent orange hat with the initiative’s logo embroidered on it in black thread – as if they would make more colourful instagram pictures. While I realize that a large part of spreading awareness is making your initiative more publicly known, wouldn’t it raise more awareness to actually interact with real homeless people and share their stories and their faces on social media?
A Brock student who wishes to remain anonymous, reached out to me and shared her experience and what homelessness actually looks like to her. When she was eight years old, she experienced homelessness with her mother which saw them living in the back of their van. When she was 20, she went through a couple of months of staying in women’s shelters and couchsurfing at friends’ houses.
“[Five Days for the Homeless] is marketing an image that quite frankly does not represent the many facets of homelessness. They’re basically saying that my experience means nothing,” the student said. “No one’s experience is any less because it’s different.”
An initiative without the support and participation of those who the initiative is for is a hollow, self-laudatory, PR campaign. Sure, the proceeds from the initiative will be going to a charity that will help homeless people, but has anybody to bother ask an actual homeless people what they think of this initiative? Would they view a couple kids rich enough to afford university, pretending to be homeless for a week, as a positive attempt to spread awareness? Or simply an exercise that degrades the people who find themselves in such a hopeless situation and proves to everyone once again the benefits of having money?
Despite the money being raised, the image that will resonate with people at the end of the day is of a Facebook post of a few smiling students, wrapped snugly in sleeping bags and worlds away from an individual with torn clothes, a garbage bag wrapped around them, shivering outside in downtown St. Catharines. The danger of this initiative is that it changes our mental associations of homelessness from a real social problem to a fun, week-long camp-at-school event that only happens once a year.