Braving the elements for a good cause

A group of McGill students are braving the elements to raise money for local charities and to raise awareness of the plight of Canada's homeless people.
Michelle Boorman and other members of McGill's 5 Days for the Homeless team are braving the elements to raise money for local charities. / Photo: Hossein Taheri
Michelle Boorman and other members of McGill’s 5 Days for the Homeless team are braving the elements to raise money for local charities. / Photo: Hossein Taheri

By Neale McDevitt

Jonathan Bacon doesn’t hesitate when asked what it takes to survive a Montreal winter living on the street. “Cardboard and dry socks,” he says. “Dry socks are gold on the street.”

Even though he has never been homeless, Bacon knows of what he speaks, having just finished his fourth night sleeping outside Redpath Hall as part of the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign. “Sunday night was particularly harsh,” says Bacon, now in his second 5-Days campaign and a member of the McGill team’s executive committee. “We didn’t have enough sleeping bags for everyone and it was cold. Some people had to wrap themselves in table cloths and spare coats.

“Last night was really rough too,” he says, following the storm that dumped some 20 cm of snow on Montreal. “Our number one goal was protection from the snow and wind. We had a tarp held down by cones and trash cans which flapped around us all night, making it really hard to sleep – not to mention we were 14 squeezed on a medium sized tarp, often literally on top of each other.”

In all, several dozen McGill students will live outside from March 9-14, in order to increase awareness of the issue of homelessness and to raise donations for Montreal’s Dans la rue, a grassroots, community-based organization that works with street kids and at-risk youth aged 12 to 25; and Chez Doris, a women’s shelter that offers educational and recreational activities, social services and professional services for women in need. The team’s goal is to raise $15,000.

The 5 Days initiative was founded in 2005 by students at the University of Alberta School of Business. McGill joined in 2008, when the campaign went national. To date, 5 Days has raised over $1,212,000 – including some $250,000 last year – and has spread its message from coast to coast, with students from 26 Canadian universities and colleges taking part in this year’s edition.

Over the course of the week, participants are required to remain on campus for five days with no income, personal communication devices or access to showers. They have to sleep outside with only a pillow and a sleeping bag and can only eat food donated directly from passersby. They also must attend all their regular classes and keep up with their schoolwork, and are expected to write about their experiences at the end of the campaign. “We’re allowed to brush our teeth, though – and we strongly encourage people to do it,” says Bacon with a chuckle, rubbing his unshaven chin.

Recent data from a March 2013 Ipsos Reid poll suggests that as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing at some point during the past five years. And while it is very hard to collect hard numbers, some experts suggest anywhere between 28,000 – 50,000 Canadians experience homelessness on a given night. And while Bacon has had to endure a few uncomfortable nights, he knows it is nothing compared to what less fortunate people face every day. “We don’t pretend to understand the reality of homeless people. We have access to facilities and all of us will eventually go back to our homes. People who are really homeless have none of that,” he says. “I don’t think any of us can really imagine how hard that must be.”

The McGill Team has already received its fair share of support, including interviews with local media and a visit from former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque. And while the team is living on donated food and drink, what it really wants is to reach its $15,000 goal. “These charities live on donations,” Bacon says. “People shouldn’t feel bad if they only have some spare change to give. Every nickel makes a difference.”

Bacon has been so affected by his 5 Days experience that he’s changed his future plans. “When I first started in IDS, I was aiming for a more international approach to aid. But in doing this I realized we need a lot of help in local communities as well so I’m reorienting myself in that direction. I want to help homeless people as my job,” he says. “This definitely sparked something in me – and I’m not the only one. This is a real game-changing experience for a lot of people.”

The McGill 5 Days for the Homeless team is stationed in front of Redpath Hall on the terrace, although they canvas donations around campus. The 5 Day campaign ends on Friday, March 14, so get your donations in early. You can follow the team’s blog by clicking here.