They’re sleeping under the stars, but it’s no camping trip— it’s a reminder of harsh realities faced by many around the world.
Six University of Manitoba Asper School of Business students have been sleeping outdoors on campus since Tuesday as part of the now-annual 5 Days for the Homeless campaign, a nationwide initiative to raise awareness of the problem of homelessness and funds for related charities.
"We’re also trying to raise specific awareness about youth homelessness," says U of M student Jayd Christie, co-chair for 2013.
Donations to participating U of M students will go towards the non-profit Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc. (RaY), which works towards harm reduction with street-entrenched and homeless young people.
RaY provides in-kind support and helps promote the 5 Days initiative, according to RaY special projects co-ordinator Scott Angus, an Asper School graduate who was himself a "sleeper" in 2011 and campaign co-chair at the U of M in 2012.
"Sleepers" can only receive food and drink through direct donations, are allowed only one change of clothes, have only a pillow and a sleeping bag and have no access to showers or even to washrooms when campus buildings are closed. Any manner of shelter must be made from materials scavenged from around campus.
Founded in 2005 at the University of Alberta’s School of Business, the campaign expanded nationally in 2008, with a campaign launched at 10 universities across Canada. By 2011 that number had more than doubled to 22. To date, close to $1 million has been raised nationwide, according to the 5 Days website.
The campaign has not been without its criticisms, however.
"It shouldn’t be necessary to take part in a spectacle to raise money for a cause, and emulation shouldn’t be a condition of empathy," stated a March 2012 editorial in The Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper of Queen’s University in Kingston, ON.
Christie insists it’s not about the students themselves, or "pretending to be homeless."
Nonetheless, the RaY website says students will "experience a taste of life on the street," and the 5 Days website declares that "students from across the country will be making personal sacrifices" in participating.
"It’s a stunt, yes, but a stunt for an ongoing cause," says Angus. "The goal is to get people thinking about who else is sleeping outside."
To that end, Christie says that there will always be someone in the designated spot outside the Asper School so that participants are visible. They will also be wearing identifying orange shirts.
All that being said, it remained an eye-opening experience for Angus personally.
"Even a little taste of the experience gives you real perspective on the vicious cycle of homelessness," he says.
According to the 5 Days website, U of A students back in 2005 wanted in part to change "the negative perception" that business students are socially indifferent. Angus further argues that business students "can promote the initiative in the business community."
Christie says removing the stigma attached to homelessness is in fact another campaign goal.
Twenty-one-year-old student and first-time "sleeper" Janelle Remillard says that she saw an opportunity to help make the homeless less invisible.
Christie is "very hopeful" the financial goal of $20,000 will be once again surpassed this year as it was in 2012, when a total of $21,000 was raised.