Five Days for the Homeless was founded fifteen years ago at the University of Alberta’s School of Business. It was started by a group of students who saw homelessness as a growing problem that was being increasingly ignored, and not just in Alberta, but across the country.
The students were looking to raise between $500 and $1,000 for their local Youth Emergency Shelter Society, or YESS. They were not expecting to take their fundraiser outside Alberta, let alone across Canada.
However, after raising more than double their goal, the students saw potential to grow their fundraiser into a grassroots campaign that would raise awareness about homelessness in Canada. To date, Five Days for the Homeless has managed to raise well over a million dollars and includes nearly 20 participating universities and colleges.
There are some very basic rules if one wishes to participate. According to their website, students must remain on campus for five days, have no income or food or drink (everything must be donated), have only a pillow and a sleeping bag, and have no access to showers or facilities. Students must still attend their classes, but the point of the campaign is to get students to see what it’s actually like to try and make a living off the streets.
The question on many people’s mind is this: will this really get students to see what it’s like to be homeless? Are these students truly getting a taste of the real thing? Many people are not convinced.
The complaint that is often leveled against campaigns like these is not that the fundraising is going towards a bad or unworthy cause or that their motives are questionable. Rather, what the critics see is a bunch of privileged young adults with the right opinions camping outside for a few days and once it’s over, they go back home to a warm couch and microwaved dinners.
In this sense, they don’t really get to experience homelessness, what it’s like, the toll it takes on you or the harsh and difficult sacrifices that one has to make to stay warm and your stomach full.
In one sense, I can sympathize with this argument. They are, when one gets down to it, just a bunch of students camping outside for a week. They still have a home and fridge to return to. They aren’t starving or fending off the bitter cold. But does this mean that they’re getting no visible taste of what it’s like to be homeless, to go hungry and without shelter?
Here I take issue with the detractors. George Orwell, author of The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, realized years before social justice appeared on the scene, that if one wants to understand something – anything really – you have to immerse yourself in that experience. If you don’t see what it’s actually like, if you don’t witness it for yourself and what it does to those living it, you will never truly understand it. You have to live that your experience yourself so to speak.
In Down and Out in Paris and London, first published in 1933, Orwell provides us with a vivid account of what poverty is actually like in and around the Paris suburbs during the early years of the Great Depression. He makes his due working in the kitchens and restaurants around Paris and in London, he lives the homeless life, or as a ‘tramp’ as they were referred to then, scrounging what he could to get by and living in filthy lodgings and workhouses.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, Orwell investigates working class conditions in the north of England at the height of the depression. In cities like Lancashire and Yorkshire where much of Britain’s coal mining and industry was located, he witnessed deplorable conditions. Whole communities without running water, electricity or sanitation; people who were on the brink of starvation and whose very livelihoods were uncertain from one day to the next.
In the closing chapter of Down and Out, he writes: “At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”
What we learn from Orwell’s accounts is that if one is to grapple with the kind of misery that he experienced, if one is to truly understand it, the only way is to live it for yourself.
While these students may never see or experience the true depths and misery of homelessness – Orwell did have the advantage of time on his hand as a full-time writer and reporter – they have at the very least glimpsed an image of what it’s like. We need people who know and understand that experience. Without them, without that knowledge from the ground up, the policy solutions we set out to address homelessness will always fall short.