For five days every year, students from universities all across Canada participate in the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign. During this time, they give up some of the most basic comforts and necessities that we tend to take for granted – food, running water, and a roof over their heads – to raise money for homeless communities throughout the country. That means that some students (those who stay on the streets for the entire length of the campaign) don’t go home at all for five days – they don’t have the luxury of taking a nice, hot shower during this time, and they survive only on food donations. Talk about hard core! But for some people, this type of life is reality, which is a fact that the 5 Days campaign aims to bring awareness to.
Since its inception in 2005 by students at the University of Alberta, the campaign has raised over $1,212,000 for charitable organizations from coast to coast. This year, 5 Days for the Homeless is taking place from March 8th to the 13th. Jonathan Bacon, VP Communications at the McGill division of 5 Days, has participated in the campaign for the past couple of years and has come back for his third time this March. I asked him a little bit more about the campaign and his past experiences participating in it.
Moegi Egan (ME): What is 5 Days for the Homeless, and how long has it been going on for?
Jonathan Bacon (JB): We’re a national organization, originally started in Alberta with the School of Business at the University of Alberta, and it spread across Canada through management faculties of universities across the country. At McGill, I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been going on for – maybe around seven years. This year is the third time that I’m participating.
ME: Who exactly do the donations go to?
JB: Basically, every city chooses charities to give to. We [those schools participating in Montreal] give to Dans la Rue, which gives so many services. I volunteer on their van, which goes to four different neighbourhoods, six nights a week, giving out hot dogs, clothing, hygiene supplies… everything. It’s a really great organization. They also have a day service and a bunker for homeless youth.
We also give to Chez Doris, one of Montreal’s women’s shelters. That organization is pretty multi-dimensional as well, which is great; they offer financial support, legal advice, they have food banks, and they supply clothing.
ME: What has your experience been like in past years with 5 Days?
JB: Every year has been really different. The first year I did it, three years ago, I was a basic volunteer. I slept outside for four nights out of five, canvassed a lot, and had a lot of fun. After that point I really wanted to get more involved in the campaign, so that’s what I did last year. Though last year I started out as a basic volunteer again, one of the committee members couldn’t take the workload anymore so I had to step up. Since then, I’ve been kind of co-executive director, but my official title is VP communications.
Like I said before, every year has been different. The first year I did it was the year of rain. We were wet all week, it was gross… you really learned the value of plastic bags in that kind of a situation. The following year, last year, was the snow year. We did it on a week when there were two or three snowstorms, it was crazy – we were freezing!
ME: Let’s cross our fingers for warmer weather this year!
JB: Well, they’re forecasting fairly warm weather during the week we’re doing it – around -3 to -5… It sounds good, but the problem with that type of weather is that it’ll be very slushy on the ground, so we might have a repeat of the rainy year.
ME: Despite all the weather mishaps, what keeps you coming back each year?
JB: Oh, so many things. I love the initiative itself, I think it’s great to have people break away from their habits and from their comfort zones by sleeping outside for five nights with nothing but their backpacks. Also, I like how much money we raise – it surprises me every year. We got more than $15,000 last year, so our goal this time is to surpass last year’s mark and reach $16,000. The team of volunteers is always great, too. Lastly, it’s a cause that I’ve been volunteering for during the past few years and it’s a field I want to work in [Jonathan currently works at Rézo, a Montreal organization], so it just makes sense to keep being involved [with 5 Days for the Homeless].
ME: Homelessness is generally quite stigmatized, and there are a lot of stereotypes that surround homeless people. Is there anything you’d like to say concerning this issue?
JB: I think what I would say to most people is that homelessness is much more complicated than one would think; there is no “one path” to homelessness. There is not “one solution” to homelessness either, as every case is different. For example, some people are not necessarily homeless because they had already-existing psychological problems; maybe going to live in the streets is what triggered a psychosis. There are so many different stories, it’s very circumstantial.
[As an aside, Jonathan is publishing an article in Fields|Terrains, the McGill undergraduate journal of anthropology, which deals directly with this issue. The link will be added here when it comes out.]
ME: What kind of advice would you give to first-time participants of 5 Days?
JB: *chuckles* Brings many pairs of socks. Seriously. The first year I did it, I had one pair for the whole week – that was a bad idea. Last year I brought along three pairs, and this year I’m bringing five or six. Dry socks are so important – even the homeless people who I work with, they tell me “you need dry socks.” Other than dry socks, bring patience… and talk to people, make friends!
ME: Let’s say there are people who want to help, but who aren’t willing to go the full mile and live on the streets during 5 Days. What else can they do to support the cause?
JB: We have canvassing efforts going on during the day at the Roddick Gates [corner of McGill College and Sherbrooke], and ideally at the Milton Gates [corner of Milton and University] if we have enough people. Volunteers basically just walk around with buckets, asking people for donations. Surprisingly, that’s the best way for us to make money. If people want to help out but don’t want to sleep outside, just doing canvassing is amazing – there can never be too many canvassers. We’ll get them a bucket and a T-shirt, and send them out.
People can always donate online too, at www.5days.ca/mcgill/donate [or donations can be made to another university campaign of your choice], and we always have events going on throughout the year: we have two apartment crawls a year, and we try to have at least one bake sale a month.
ME: Anything else you’d like people to know?
JB: This is something I’m going to say coming out of my work with Rézo, which is an organization that doesn’t get as much attention as big-shot organizations like Dans la Rue and Chez Doris: I would encourage people to look into smaller, local charities like Rézo, or Cactus. There are so many little organizations and charities that do great work, but when people want to donate [to charities], they tend to give money to the “big players”. That often means that the smaller charities die out.
ME: Would you say, then, that these smaller organizations are more specialized in terms of what they do?
JB: Sometimes, yes. But other times it’s just that they haven’t been around for as long, and they don’t have the same attention [read: funding] as the bigger names. Just know that there are other charities out there, and they do great work.
Do you know of any other great local charities that deserve more attention? Write about them in the comment section below.