Your donation is nothing compared to the power of government policy
As this is my final Carillon op-ed, I thought long and hard over what I wanted to write. Eventually, I decided to offer my take on an issue that sprang up recently on campus: the Five Days for the Homeless campaign.
Before I start, I will say that I do not think that the students who participated are cheating people out of their money or any such other theory. Rather, I want to touch on the method that the campaign uses to tackle this issue. In our last issue, the Carillon ran an op-ed by contributor Alicia Miller critical of the campaign and a piece by Arts and Culture Editor Destiny Kaus supporting the project. While I edited the former, it was the latter article that caught my attention, as it described how Destiny went from dismissing to understanding the campaign. In her brief Q & A with the participants, they make clear that they are not actually trying to live the homeless life. Rather, as Daniella Zemlak, one of the participants, put it, “All we’re trying to do is create awareness and get the conversation going.”
It is this that somewhat irritates me. If you spend but a moment downtown, how could you fail to be aware that there are homeless people? I encountered some sleeping in the lobby of a downtown bank branch once and felt moved enough to withdraw money from my account and place it near them. In my opinion, we have enough awareness; we need action, and the 5D4H campaign represents a stumbling block to this.
I say this because I see the campaign as promoting the idea that homelessness can be solved at an individual level. For one thing, this campaign was designed for more than just raising awareness. According to the Business Students’ Society’s website, the campaign is also about “[raising donations] for local charities… and to change the image of business students.” Already, people could be forgiven for thinking this is a PR stunt after reading that last part.
More importantly, lots of attention is given to the qualities of individual homeless people, such as their state of mind, but nothing about the social forces that affect being homeless. What good is your donation when the provincial government just cut the low-income family supplement in its most recent budget? And what good are food banks when that same government allows Deveraux Developments to turn affordable housing units into marketable properties due to budgeting mistakes on the company’s part? In looking at the individual and raising awareness about his or her condition, we miss the bigger picture.
To say, as Ashley Bernstein did in Destiny Kaus’ article, that the 5D4H campaign gets people thinking about homelessness is not enough; it is not guaranteed that these thoughts will lead to action. And action cannot be done unless the wider social context of government social spending and employment policies is understood. I believe that whatever noble endeavour this campaign has is obscured by its downplaying of the wider social contexts of homelessness. They present a tableau of homeless victims, but the causes remain out of sight.
Therefore, I issue a challenge to the Business Students’ Society and to anyone else interested in doing this campaign: next year, raise awareness of how government policies affect homeless people. Talk about how government social spending affects the environment homeless people are in. Above all, talk about what we as a society can do to lessen, if not end, homelessness. By now, students know that it maybe more difficult to keep a roof over their heads when they live on their own. What they need to know are ways that these trends can end. It is better to come together as a society and enact policies rescuing people from homelessness rather than to tackle the problem yourself through donations. I hope the next 5D4H campaign reflects this principle.