Bringing homelessness out of the shadows

McGill students brave the elements to raise funds for and awareness of Montreal's homeless youth
“I got emotional because I knew that, as hard as it was, I would be able to go home to get warm, eat some food and get ready for class… But not everyone has that hope,” says Sarosha Chagani, left, of her first night sleeping outside.Neale McDevitt

For Sarosha Chagani, the night of Sunday, March 17 was an eye-opener, literally. Braving sub-zero temperatures outside the McLennan-Redpath Library in a sleeping bag, the first-year Management student barely slept a wink.

“It takes a physical and mental toll,” she said. “I got emotional because I knew that, as hard as it was, I would be able to go home to get warm, eat some food and get ready for class… But not everyone has that hope.”

Chagani is a member of the McGill contingent taking part in the annual Five Days for the Homeless (5D4H) drive. 5D4H is a Canadian student-run charity campaign during which students collect money for a local charity supporting homeless youth by experiencing the homeless life for five days. This year, the goal for McGill’s 5D4H team is to raise $10,000 for Montreal organizations, Dans la Rue and Chez Doris. The volunteers are easy to spot in their orange t-shirts canvassing at the Y-intersection or Roddick Gates from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm.

First-hand experience

The “rules” are simple, though understandably Spartan. Participants live and sleep outdoors, armed only with a sleeping bag, no income, minimal communication devices and online media, and surviving on food received by direct donation – all while attending classes. “Of course, this is flexible, and students can participate to the extent that they are comfortable,” says Momone Ozawa, McGill 5D4H co-Executive Director along with Suraiya Foss-Phillips. “Because we are students first and foremost, academics and health are our priorities.”

Many people don’t understand just how significant an issue youth homelessness is in Canada. Some estimates say that as much as 20 per cent of the homeless population in Canada is comprised of youth between the ages of 13-24. It’s a stark statistic that is not lost upon 5D4H participants.

“That first night outside made me so grateful for everything I have. We are so lucky and we don’t always realize it,” says Chagani. “It is so difficult, especially for homeless youth. Sleeping outside, going to class, trying to keep up… After only one night, I wasn’t able to get any work done.

“But it’s also emotionally draining,” continues Chagani. “Canvassing people for money is difficult. You feel almost invisible because people ignore you. It made me feel very self-conscious.”

Raising funds, awareness

Like Chagani, Ozawa understands that the privations faced by 5D4H volunteers over the week pale in comparison to what thousands of Montrealers face every day.

“Thankfully the weather has been pleasant this week, although it is still very cold. The biggest challenge so far is probably the constant exhaustion,” says Ozawa. “However, we are in extremely privileged positions to experience this within a set timeframe, as well as having access to multiple resources throughout the week. These five nights don’t compare to those experiencing homelessness, and we want to be cognizant and clear about that. However, we hope that being present on campus all week will raise awareness on this issue, and fundraise money for the amazing local organizations in Montreal.”

McGill’s Five Days for the Homeless will end on Friday, March 22. Volunteers can be found accepting donations at the Y-intersection or Roddick Gates every day from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. Get more information on their facebook page.