Five Days Gets Students Fired Up: Talking About Homelessness in the Guelph Community

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Written by Jaimee-Lisa Cotter

Every year for the last ten years, students from the University of Alberta’s School of Business have organized, fundraised for, and executed a campaign to raise money and awareness for what they recognized as one of the most rapidly increasing issues in their city: homelessness.  

In its conception, the ‘Five Days for the Homeless’ (or simply put, ‘Five Days’) involved a trio of students from the college of business who sacrificed the comforts available to the general population in the midst of their campus, in order to bring attention to the issue of displaced people within their community.

Between 2005 and 2007, the localized campaign raised $25,356 towards their cause by teaming up with local businesses, challenging their professors and students, and reaching out to corporate sponsors to match community donations.

Following the 2008 University of Alberta’s annual display in Edmonton, the campaign went national, with ten schools across Canada officially launching the program on their respective campuses, and a total of seventeen schools participated in the 2009 movement.

To date, the five days initiative has raised over one million dollars towards the issue of homeless and youth at risk.

Make no mistake, Five Days aims to recreate some of the conditions that create a divide between the homeless and those fortunate enough to have access to residency, and ensure that everything that can go towards the local homeless and at-risk population does—according to their website, there are nine rules participants must follow in their fundraising efforts:

  1. Remain on campus for five days. The campaign begins 5pm local time on the Sunday of the campaign week and ends at 5pm local time on the Friday.
  2. Have no income. 100% of the funds donated to individual campaigns are passed on to their choice of local homeless youth organization.
  3. Have no food or drinks. Food can only be received through direct donations, and all non-perishable food must be kept and used as a donation for a shelter.
  4. Have only a pillow and a sleeping bag. These items can be exchanged for an emergency meal.
  5. Have no access to showers, or facilities to which their student status would usually grant them access. Washrooms can only be accessed when campus buildings are open.
  6. Sleep outside. The only exception is if inclement weather becomes a health risk.
  7. Attend all classes. Participants will complete all academic and extra-curricular responsibilities, including student organizations and teaching positions.
  8. Avoid personal communication media. Participants will be expected to not use cell phone or online social networking websites (Facebook, etc) during the Five Days campaign except for the purposes of promoting the campaign. Each region is required to have at least one cell phone for safety purposes.
  9. Write about or film their experiences. Participants’ experiences will be posted on an online blog available on www.5days.ca.

The coping mechanisms and assistance that students are simply taking a break from are opportunities that homeless youth don’t have, and may never experience in their life time. While it’s great that a select few students volunteer to displace themselves to raise awareness and money, it’s important to not let other students and passers-by slip in to pretending that five days of personal inconvenience is the same as trying to live on your own without resources that are a basic human right.

Going to class without showering is the least of some people’s worries, and feeling bad for someone because they haven’t been able to take a shower or do a load of laundry isn’t the same as contributing to a philanthropic cause that is so much more complex than we can fix with spare change and a pizza slice.

What would happen if someone who actually was living on the streets was sleeping on the porch of Raithby House every night? Would students still drop off whole pepperoni pizzas and boxes of timbits for them? The amount of kindness that people show their fellow students who are sleeping out in the cold is moving, but if we’re all being honest with ourselves, is also unrealistic.

“It seems like a decent fundraiser for the ivory tower, but instead of sleeping in tents to ‘feel how homeless people feel’ it would probably be more beneficial to actually volunteer in ways that help actual homeless humans instead of just raising money and then feeling good about yourself” says Alexandra, a recent Guelph graduate who remains an active voice and member in the local activist community. “I mean that's all nice but we should 100 per cent just house homeless people: it's cheaper than having them on the street, and putting the onus of financial fundraising on an area of the population that is not well off and in a lot of debt [students] instead of changing the systematic way we deal with homelessness is such a bull-shit band aid issue.”

The important part about campaigns like the Five Days effort is that it forces us to look “homelessness” in the face. How easy is it to ignore homeless people on the streets of a busy city or when you’re driving by a person with a sign that says “Hungry, please help”? Most people wouldn’t give a second glance, and there’s no point in pretending that a stigma surrounding homeless youth and other displaced folks doesn’t exist.

In the best case scenario, initiatives like Five Days will ultimately go beyond their short duration and prompt people to get involved and contribute to the issue of homeless and at-risk youth in a way that changes the discourse surrounding this often dismissed social concern.

Last year, courtesy of the Facebook group “Overheard @ Guelph”, quite a lot of negative discussion went on about Five Days, especially about participants updating and advertising for the campaign, which snowballed into greater controversy.

“Basically, the rules of social media are strict and sleepers are absolutely not connecting for their personal social lives. However, as the campaign is a project to raise awareness about at risk youth in the community, video blogging and social media posts are a great way to get our message across” says Steph Vessely, fourth year business student at the University of Guelph and participant in last year’s Five Days campaign.

“The campaign received ridicule because our simulation doesn't give us a proper experience of homelessness, as we’re constantly being praised and receiving donations. The donations and awareness we raise during this campaign are the true reason we do it, and the Wyndham House” (Gryphon’s charity of choice for all the funds raised) “is able to provide at risk youth a place to stay and helps them get on track using proceeds from 5 Days for the Homeless.”

Organizations like Wyndham House, which offers services to homeless youth in the Guelph-Wellington area, are the kind of organizations which use community and charitable donations to actively make a difference in the lives of displaced young people who are seeking guidance.

“From my personal experience, I gained an understanding of how hard it is to go about your day without access to a proper sleep. As soon as I sat down in any class, the warmth would put me straight to sleep making it impossible to pay attention. The mental capacity just isn't there and I was not able to learn, I can't imagine what it would be like going into an interview. Although I wasn't experiencing hunger and fear that actual homeless youth feel, I believe that the campaign does a fantastic job in raising awareness and provides the Wyndham house with a sizeable donation to help the Guelph Community.”

Not only does Wyndham House offer warmth and shelter, but workshops for at-risk youth as well. Services like the Skills Development Program—which pairs a skills development worker one-on-one with an at-risk youth seeking assistance—focuses on life skills that youth may have or need to further develop in order to help them make positive life choices for themselves.

On their website under their “Long Term Residential Plan”, the organizers at Wyndham House make a valid point: “Recognizing that there are no short term solutions to youth homelessness, our long term programs target potential early leavers from the educational system and support them to stay in school”. This program offers youth who are making the initiative to get their high school diploma with a supportive, structured environment to complete their education in.

If you think Wyndham House is a unique resource center, you’re quite wrong. Covenant House, Canada’s largest organization dealing with homeless youth and at-risk youth initiatives, works out of Toronto but reaches as many young people across the country as they possibly can. With little awareness and a lack of allocated funding, organizations like Wyndham and Covenant House rely on volunteers, donations, and the strength of their communities to supply these youth with the guidance and comfort that so many other young people can find at home.

Rose Cino, the communications manager for Covenant House, shed some light on the general activities that go one at these types of organizations, which often don’t receive much recognition for their constant campaigns and efforts, largely due to the social stigma surrounding at-risk youth and the deferral of blame that many people maintain around such a complex area of discussion:

“At Covenant House, the country’s largest agency for homeless youth, we provide life-changing programs to about 300 young people annual to help youth build better futures. As well as the basics – food, clothing and shelter, we offer support, including educational and vocational assistance* and job and life skills training. Our runaway prevention program reaches about 30,000 students annually to make them aware of the problems that can lead to youth homelessness. We depend on donors for 80% of our $21.8 million annual budget and would be unable to provide our youth with the scope and quality of programs without this support.” 

Whether you approve of or dislike the Five Days campaign, it opens the floor for a conversation about the most invisible members of our societies: the vulnerable, the misguided… the ones who simply need encouragement and access to resources that so many of us find ourselves equipped with, and would be lost without.

Organizations and initiatives that try to raise awareness and funding may not always be perfect in their inception, but they are necessary steps in working towards reducing the stigma around homelessness and highlight the lack of equal opportunity and economic or social barriers that drive a wedge in between those who just happen to be born with certain privileges and those who are not.





*Covenant House welcomes youth of all (or no) denominations and offers a multi-faith chaplain and services for young people of all religions. 

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