Responding to 5 Days for the Homeless

By in Opinions

From Mar. 13-17, five University of Saskatchewan students participated in the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign, raising money, material donations and awareness about homelessness in Saskatoon. While working to reduce homelessness is a noble cause, the methods used by this campaign to raise awareness are both insensitive and concerning.

Having started in 2005 at the University of Alberta’s School of Business, 5 Days for the Homeless is a Canada-wide campaign that currently has over 20 participating institutions. As of 2016, the campaign has raised a total of $1,893,525 from all institutions combined in the past 11 years — which is undoubtedly a positive thing. The U of S campaign specifically donates its proceeds to Egadz, a non-profit organization that works with children, youth and families in Saskatoon.

According to The Homeless Hub’s latest statistics on Saskatoon, as of 2012 there were a total of 74 people living on the streets and 278 people living in emergency shelters, motels or transitional 5 Days Homeless - Jeremy Britzhousing. Since these statistics are five years old already, it is likely that these numbers are currently higher.

Clearly, combating homelessness is a worthy cause. I am fully in support of working to decrease the amount of homelessness in Saskatoon, but I do not agree with how this campaign aims to achieve that goal.

The rules of the campaign are as follows: participants remain on campus with no income, no food or drink unless received through donation, have only a pillow and sleeping bag, have no access to showers, sleep outside, must still attend all classes and must avoid personal communication unless to promote the campaign or blog about their experience.

They are to remain under these regulations for five days. However, prior to going into this experience, it is important to note that all participants are generally well-fed, well-rested and healthy and have also had the opportunity to prepare for their homelessness experience. Plus, at the end of their five days, they again have access to food, a warm bed, shelter and bathing facilities — all things not afforded to those who are truly homeless.

Participants also have access to the Internet — either via a computer or other mobile device — to promote the campaign and blog about their experiences. Again, access to the Internet, even in a limited form, is not something that truly represents what it’s like to be homeless. The experience for these five students is essentially a modified homelessness simulation.

In a recap video posted on the 5 Days for the Homeless Saskatoon Facebook page on Mar. 21, a short segment shows an individual talking to this year’s participants before their five days began. The individual says they are “so excited that you guys chose to do this,” and hopes it is “a life-changing experience.”

The issue is that the five participants’ homelessness is a choice, unlike those who are actually homeless. By likening their experience to something life-changing, the focus is on what the individual participant can personally learn and gain from five days out in the cold. The participants are regarded as brave and congratulated for stepping outside of their comfort zones to pretend to belong to a marginalized group.

My main question is, in what world is it okay to pretend to be part of a marginalized group in the name of raising awareness? Hypothetically, if students participated in a similar campaign where they pretended to be a racial, sexual, religious or other minority for five days to raise awareness, and then blogged about their experiences, you can guarantee there would be massive backlash — and rightly so.

Perhaps the reason there is no backlash to this campaign from homeless people is because there aren’t many — if any — homeless students on campus. After searching the 5 Days for the Homeless website and Facebook page for Saskatoon, it also seems that here are no homeless people involved in the campaign at all.

Homelessness needs to be addressed, yes. But can we go about this without having five students imitate being homeless? Surely there are ways to create a campaign that has the same results, without actions that simultaneously serve to further solidify the privilege that many of us with homes experience.

Photo: Jeremy Britz / Photo Editor