What ‘raising awareness’ says about our indifference

The idea behind 5 Days for the Homeless is that students will become more sympathetic to homelessness when it has a student face on it. In other words, seeing that girl from your sociology class outside in the cold – er, in the moderate Vancouver drizzle – will remind you that homeless people are human beings, and that homelessness can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, upbringing, or mental or physical ability.

While the organizers of the event certainly have the right goals in mind, the concept reveals an uncomfortable truth about our attitudes towards poverty. In a city with such an obvious homeless presence, why do we feel we need to ‘raise awareness’ of this issue? Are the countless street people begging for change you passed on your way to the bus stop not enough to remind you that this is the major social problem facing our city?

The assumption is that we are so narrow-minded as to only be capable of feeling compassion towards people in the same social and economic group as us. Seeing our friends and classmates in a disadvantaged position immediately connects their difficulties back to ourselves, and makes them more difficult to ignore than, say, the heroin addict spare-changing you outside the liquor store. As much as I would like to be offended by this notion, it may actually be true. Humans have an incredible capacity to disassociate themselves from the suffering of others as long as it doesn’t affect us directly. And for many Vancouverites, homelessness has been an issue for so long that panhandlers and drug users have simply become a part of the landscape.

Of course, the shortage of shelters and affordable housing are the result of years of apathetic government policy. Activists have been working to draw attention to this issue for as long as governments have been ignoring it, but without the interest or support of all of Vancouver’s residents, nothing is getting done.

Solving the homelessness issue may need more than simply ‘raising awareness’ - it may need for us to change the way we think. Permanent change will require more than a five day campaign, and it will require us to travel outside our comfort zone and use real empathy. I encourage everyone to donate food and money to the students participating in the campaign, but I question whether the experience will foster a lifelong commitment to helping the homeless in Vancouver.

Part of the reason that the two situations don’t immediately connect is because, quite simply, the experiences are not the same. Sleeping outside of Capilano University in North Vancouver for five days does not in any way replicate the experience of being homeless. Especially if we are talking about the DTES, the comparison is laughable. Students will be sleeping under cover in a secluded area, will not be threatened with physical or sexual violence, and will be given plenty of food to survive the week. Most importantly, they will be protected from the drug addiction and debilitating health conditions that are inextricable from homelessness in Vancouver. This incomplete representation of homelessness fails to convey the complexity of issues to students, and the lack of full understanding may prohibit effective change.

The good news is that, buoyed by the Olympic Tent Village and the Red Tent Campaign, two successful ‘awareness’ campaigns, Mayor Gregor Robertson was in Ottawa last week, promoting a national housing strategy to the federal government. Canada is the only G8 nation without such a strategy, and while it would be beneficial, the root problems of mental health and drug addiction still need to be addressed.

5 Days for the Homeless raises money for a good cause, and they should be applauded for that. But in extracting the issue from the real circumstances and causes of homelessness in Vancouver, they offer a simplified representation of poverty that will not promote long-term change. The residents of the Downtown Eastside need to be helped in terms of their experiences, challenges, and concerns. A student sleeping outside a liberal arts university in North Vancouver does not understand or represent those experiences.

// Laura Kane.


Give 5 Days some well-deserved respect

The premise of the 5 Days of Homelessness campaign is to have students live on campus for five days, surviving without showers, shelter, and technology. In essence, the students are living ‘homeless’.

One of the biggest criticisms surrounding this campaign is that the students who are living ‘homeless’ for five days are actually insulting those who are truly homeless. The irony that follows that is the feeling that by taking homelessness off the streets of Vancouver and placing a ‘simplified’ version of poverty on campus, we are doing more harm than good. However, the focus of the campaign is not to understand what it likes to feel homeless; it is in no way an empathy exercise. The campaign aims to create awareness about homelessness and raise money for an amazing cause.

In fact, many of the students are offended that this campaign would be merely passed off as an empathy exercise – these students have been working on this campaign since September with the intent of raising thousands of dollars for Alternate Shelter Society, because they understand the necessity of services like this one in our society.

Richard McCrae, the SJC coordinator, has emphasized that the campaign, ultimately, is not about spreading awareness about homelessness. He says he doubts there are students who don’t know homelessness is a problem. The important thing is to raise money for the youth at Alternate Shelter Society.

For a majority of my life I have been working on awareness campaigns. Through it all, there is one lesson that stands out: your campaign is guaranteed to be more successful if people actually know about it. Handing out pamphlets and putting up posters is rarely enough. Success comes with word-of-mouth, and word-of-mouth is created when there is something to talk about.

Personally, I am more likely to tell my friends about a group of students who appear to be living homeless on campus than about an ‘amazing’ poster I just saw in the library. It doesn’t matter if the conversation about the campaign is positive or negative, what matters is that people are talking. Too often we are given the option to ignore an issue, and remain mute about it, because it is not relative to us and is not in our face. I promise: this campaign will be in your face, and you will end up talking about it. But while you’re talking about it, don’t forget to throw a couple of dollars to Alternate Shelter Society.

I challenge those who criticize the campaign to ask themselves if they too would be willing to sacrifice much of what they have for five days. Regardless of how you feel about the campaign, you cannot deny that this group of students has taken on a heroic initiative. They are giving up five days and many things we take for granted, all in an effort to bring awareness about the issue of homelessness and to raise money for Alternate Shelter Society, an organization that provides youth at-risk with a second chance. This organization will be forced to close if they cannot raise $12,000 for their accreditation process, a fee that has, until recently, been covered by the government.

Yes, the current homelessness issue may have arisen thanks to apathetic government policy surrounding homelessness, but that is why we need to give the power to the people. Governments deal with what they feel the voters want, because the whole purpose of getting elected into Parliament is not to create change, but, rather, to become re-elected. Everything an MP does between elections is in an attempt to receive your vote. If citizens give off the impression that they do not care either way what happens with homelessness, then MPs are free to decide what they think is important.

Society as a whole has begun to view the homeless as one massive group, and if we are incapable of separating individuals from that group, society is in a great deal of peril. I agree with Laura when she says our society is at a standstill. Citizens have become uninvolved, and as a result issues like homelessness are getting worse instead of better. Homelessness campaigns happen fairly frequently, but instead of thinking ‘not another campaign for homelessness’, we need to be asking ourselves why it is necessary for so many campaigns to be occurring, all around one issue. If we truly want to create change for the issue of homelessness, we cannot disregard the actions of others when they are working towards that change, no matter how small their actions may seem.

// Samantha Thompson,
Assistant news editor

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com