Dal students try homelessness for a week

Dalhousie Commerce Society students get a taste of what it feels like to be homeless for five days.

By Linea Volkering

Students exiting the Rowe building notice campaigners (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)
Students exiting the Rowe building notice campaigners (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)

Dalhousie student Emily McAughey has been living under a tarp for the last five nights.

Braving the snow, freezing rain, high winds and below zero temperatures, she is one of a handful of Dalhousie Commerce Society students participating in 5 Days For The Homeless, a countrywide campaign that invites university students to live outside from March 9-14. The goal is to raise awareness for homelessness. As the first Atlantic university to get involved, the students hope to raise money for a local organization, Phoenix Youth.

Survival by public donation

“We started our day on Sunday, and each were allowed to pack a small backpack. Knowing that all we could bring was a couple pairs of socks and a pair of sweatpants so that was eye-opening in itself,” McAughey says.

The students have been relying on public donations in order to stay warm and well fed.

5 days for homelessness

“We’ve been given a ton of hot chocolate throughout the day, and pizza by Domino’s. The faculty has been taking care of us, and students have been taking care of us.”

McAughey says they were surprised to receive a tarp, cardboard, sleeping bags and toiletries. With these items, the group created a small camp outside of the Rowe business building.

Campus space helps educate

Donated tarp and cardboard, held down by pipes, rocks and promotional grab bags. (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News
Donated tarp and cardboard, held down by pipes, rocks and promotional grab bags.

“We’re all commerce students and this is supported by the commerce society so being outside the faculty was good because we’re getting all of our peers coming in. It’s a little more sheltered, not much more, but a little bit more than what we would hope for,” she says.

McAughey acknowledges that her experience outside the Rowe building differs from the experience of those without campus security. The benefit of occupying a campus space means there is increased awareness of the cause.

“We’ve had so many people that have just walked by and then other people who have found us online and have came to talk to us. It’s a big push for people to realize that this is a huge issue,” she says.

During their time on campus, the students have been visited and educated by several organizations such as Shelter Nova Scotia, Phoenix Youth and Standing In The Gap that provide resources to combat homelessness.

Changing Attitudes

After spending four nights in the freezing and damp environment, fending off sickness and having to overcome the concern for safety, McAughey says she feels she has a better understanding of what it means to be homeless.

“It’s just, after four days, it’s knowing you get to go home on the fifth day. But then, knowing that there’s people experiencing homelessness that don’t have that privilege — that they know there’s an end to it — that’s what we’re feeling right now.”

A 2013 report by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia states that in 2012, 1,860 individuals stayed at shelters offered in the HRM. Halifax has also been identified by the federal government as one of the 61 Canadian communities to have a significant homelessness issue.


Huddled for warmth, students take turns sleeping during the day.
Huddled for warmth, students take turns sleeping during the day.

Homelessness expert weighs in

Don Spicer is the executive director at Shelter Nova Scotia, which held an event comparable to 5 Days For The Homeless, last year. He commends the campaign’s motive and says that any effort to raise awareness and recognition of the circumstances of homelessness is a step forward for the cause.

“It’s not about pretending to know what it’s like to be homeless, it’s about creating awareness and showing that you’re willing to sacrifice and learn a little bit about yourself,” he says.

Spicer also offers some everyday advice for those who witness homelessness in their daily lives.

Cigarettes, apple core beside student "camp"
Cigarettes, apple core beside student “camp”

“If they happen to approach you or ask you for money, you don’t have to give money. It’s a personal choice. A lot of people tend to want to ignore them and pretend they’re not there, they’ll suddenly need to check their iPhone or check the storefront across the street. It makes people feel like they’re invisible, like they’re not a part of the community. So, a simple thing someone can do is to acknowledge their existence,” he says.

“It helps to humanize them. It makes them feel part of the community.”