The Miles I Didn’t Walk

I want to describe the pain in my stomach as I long for food and how I shiver endlessly, trying to keep warm at night. I want you know how begging for change shreds my dignity. I want to tell you how it feels not knowing where I will get my next meal. But I cannot, because I have never experienced this longing, pain or fear. I started writing this article in an attempt to report on the plight of the men and women on the streets. Not until I started typing did I realize how difficult and perhaps impossible it is to portray homelessness without ever having been there myself. I am not one of the estimated 220,000 people across Canada without a bed.

Our surroundings sometimes fool us into thinking that because we live in the West, we all enjoy the comforts of a home. St. Leonard’s Community Service Centre challenges this mindset and uncovers its flaws.

The night of Wednesday, February 2 was a frigid -14C. The shapes of tiny cardboard huts become visible while walking down Market Street. And there were other, moving shapes – people living in these boxes. Conversation, laughter and the rustling of sleeping bags floated on the icy wind. St. Leonard’s Community Services hosted a night “out in the cold” as a fundraiser for youth homelessness.

Thirty-one people spent the night on Market Street in what could be considered a box-city. They raised $1800 in pledges that night.

Every night, 14,145 Canadians lack a roof over their head and a nourishing meal in their stomachs. Local aid initiatives to reduce this ever-changing statistic are in progress.

St. Leonard’s sixth annual Youth Homelessness Week provided a step in the right direction. The week’s fund and awareness-raising activities included a barbeque, walk, the “night in the cold” event and a soup-tasting competition featuring 17 local restaurants. The experience-oriented fundraiser allows individuals to do more than write a cheque or attend an event. Participants slept in cardboard boxes, risking their comfort, warmth and security – at least for one night.

“This year has been are biggest success so far,” says Katie Cutis, the St. Leonard’s Youth and Art Program Coordinator.

Alongside students and community members stood Robert Feagan, a Laurier Brantford Contemporary Studies Professor. Feagan, clad in many layers, gloves and a fur-lined toque, risked “a night in the cold” with the support of colleagues, raising $700 in pledges.

I watched Feagan put the finishing touches on his elaborate cardboard box hut.

He directed his sleeping bag away from the wind, as he explained he would be running on “good vibes.”

“It is a way to challenge myself and get a better sense of what it is like to be a part of the community,” Feagan explains. “It is a really neat way that is right downtown, to get some buzz going.”

No one plans to have lampposts and sewer drains for neighbours. Those in this position often struggle to escape. In 2008, the Government of Canada implemented “Breaking the Cycle” – a reduction strategy to diminish the seemingly endless circle of poverty, especially among youth. They have identified the key indicators of escaping poverty as school readiness, high school graduation rates, educational progress, low income measure, depth of poverty and standard of living. The plan concentrates heavily on social assistance, education and community building.

Last year the St. Leonard’s 11-bed Buffalo Street residence maintained full residency and over $20,000 in donations were raised. Despite the continued initiatives, poverty and homelessness is relentless. Funds, volunteers, awareness and genuine brotherly care are requirements for defeating poverty.

I have watched people cower or worse, snicker at a man who appears down on his luck. That man was once someone’s son, husband or brother – perhaps he still is. Signs of hunger are hard to digest. Those living without comfort make us uncomfortable. And perhaps that’s why we laugh.

I have researched, I have interviewed and I have thought heavily, but still I do not know the longing, pain or fear of those without a home. Even as I prepare to send this article for publication and move onto another project, the subject still weighs heavy on my mind. When fasting previously, I put myself in the shoes of the hungry – I saw them in a different light. I tried to temporarily put myself in the mind of the homeless and was overwhelmed with empathy.

But then I put on my boots of privilege and will move on to write other stories.

Homelessness and poverty remain, and the contrast still unsettles me.

I have eaten many things, but I still haven’t tasted hunger.

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