5 Days for the Homeless: ‘I felt fully humbled’
Earlier this week, Guillaume Perron, chief commercial officer for KnowledgeOne, spent a chilly night on the sidewalk outside the Henry F. Hall Building to support Concordia’s 5 Days for the Homeless campaign. Here’s his story, originally published on KnowledgeOne’s blog.
“Dad, why are you all dressed up?”
I was dressed as if heading to the Arctic, although I wasn’t going that far. And I had a sleeping bag rated to -30 C with me. I couldn’t have been further from the usual Sunday evening family routine. My children were about to go to bed, and I was leaving.
“I’m going to sleep on the street tonight, Honey.”
If my daughter wasn’t surprised before, she was now. Her face was showing curiosity with a hint of anxiety. I had to explain further.
“Do you remember the people we give money to on the street? Many of them don’t have a home like we do. They sleep on the street, every night. I will join a group of friends that will do the same and we will ask for money from passersby to collect for the homeless.”
What hit home first was that I would not be sleeping at home and would not wake them in the morning as I usually do. Then she realized that the night temperatures are around the freezing point this mid-March. It took some reassuring and strong hugs before I stepped out in the clear Montreal night.
On my way to the Concordia University campus meeting point, mind and nerves were unsurprisingly restless. After all, I was voluntarily renouncing the most basic elements of human needs as described by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” He described a hierarchy of needs with, at the most basic level, the needs of shelter, food and security, all the way up to love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. His theory was that until you satisfy one level, the levels above couldn’t be satisfied.
While I was in for just one night, a group of dedicated volunteers from Concordia University will be relying on donations for food and drink while sleeping on the corner of Mackay St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. until Friday, March 18, at 5 p.m.
The 5 Days for the Homeless campaign was founded at the University of Alberta’s School of Business in 2005. Today, 26 universities across Canada support the cause, which has now collected more than $1.6 million in donations for various local homeless charities.
When I got to the meeting point at 8 p.m., most volunteers were already there, sporting the campaign’s bright orange T-shirt over numerous layers of clothing. Tins and jars were ringing with small change and passersby were being gently solicited for the cause.
I introduced myself to the group, took my tin and dove into the experience. The atmosphere was good-natured, warm and friendly with plenty of humour distracting the attention from the chilly wind funnelled by the campus buildings.
I had the chance to hear Josh, the nine-year veteran and founder of the Concordia campaign, explaining how the event resonates with him and how important it is to address the homeless situation in our city.
Emilie from the Commerce and Administration Student Association of JMSB (CASA) shared her motivations for her first year as volunteer, recounting that previous participants had to endure blizzards dumping 20 centimetres of snow on the sleepers, followed by brutal cold spells.
The forecast for this week isn’t snow but rain. Emilie knew so well that if your gear gets wet, then your nights becomes really miserable. The rules of the event are clear, you live off of donations and you sleep on cardboard. You may only bring your clothes, sleeping bag and a pillow. No phones, no money.
And so we headed for the cardboard at 11 p.m., hoping to make the most of an uncomfortable bed of concrete. While I was trying to get to sleep my mind drifted off to those who live like this every day. If anything, my experience so far had brutally removed that judgement filter we so easily apply to the homeless and I vowed to focus solely on their needs. And these are the most basic needs that every human being has a right to expect.
As I shuffled and turned for hours, huddled with this dedicated group of selfless and generous individuals, I tried and failed to protect my body against the harshness of cold, hard concrete. My brain kept waking me up, as if to check my surroundings and identify the inevitable street noises, wondering if any kind of danger was imminent.
As daylight made its way to the small frosted sleeping bag opening, I felt fully humbled by the experience. While I would soon shower and warm my stiff back, get a hot coffee and breakfast, the volunteers will soldier on all week. When their dedication ends, they will leave behind those who have lost not only creature comforts, but also long-term health, dignity and possibly hope.
My own hope is that this story draws your attention to them. Please support the 5days.ca campaign (donate or bring hot food and drinks to the volunteers), and keep pocket change at hand on your next walk outside. I’m sure it would help someone out there.
I want to thank Stéphane Brutus, interim dean of the John Molson School of Business, for introducing me to the campaign and sending an invitation I couldn’t refuse.
Concordia’s 5 Days for the Homeless campaign runs until Friday, March 18, at 5 p.m. You can make a donation online.