Waking up after sleeping on the sidewalk all night with 5 Days for the Homeless

5 Things I Learned while Homeless for 1 Night

Students across Canada sleep outside for 5 nights without food, water, or hygiene products to raise money for organizations that support homelessness.

I slept one night on the streets of Montreal with the 5 Days for the Homeless Concordia University team.

A couple things stuck with me from this meaningful experience:

  1. Cheap food in disposable containers is way more accessible than healthy stuff.

Since we could only eat what was donated to us, we received a lot of fast food, snacks, and hot chocolate. Although I was grateful to have anything at all, food donations that try to get as much bang for their buck are often processed. Those living in poverty are less likely to have a constant supply of nutritious food. This was even more challenging for the people on our team who had dietary restrictions.

Normally I totally avoid disposable products, but there was no way I was going to ask a random person to please rinse out my reusable mug before they bought me a coffee.

2. It’s encouraging to get a smile.

Even if people didn’t donate, a little respect can go a long way. After so many people ignoring us, it was nice for someone to finally acknowledge that we were talking to them.

3. On the street, it’s hard to focus on anything besides the present moment.

I didn’t have access to my phone or computer, so I couldn’t get any work done that evening. Instead, I watched people, talked with others, or enjoyed a warm hot chocolate.

Sleeping on the sidewalk ended up being super uncomfortable, but thanks to a security guard, at least I knew that I (and my stuff) would be safe. I was able to get a few hours of sleep in, but it was still very hard to focus and actually be productive at work. I looked (and smelled) unprofessional.

4. People are freaking generous, but we definitely have privilege.

I was so surprised and touched at how people donated their time and money, and went out of their way to get us food. However, I couldn’t help thinking that we were part of a group of students, on campus, who had some recognition already from our peers and the media.

When actual people on the streets came by to hang out with us, bystanders were less friendly or even avoided them completely, compared to how they treated our team wearing bright orange shirts. Hopefully people are as generous to actual homeless folks, but I think our privilege made us feel a greater acceptance and support from the general public who walked by.

5. There are tons of ways to volunteer to help homelessness

There are so many ways to help combat poverty and hunger. The funds we raised went to Chez Doris and Dans la Rue, but there many more community groups that help. We met homeless folks who told us about their mental illness, addiction problems, and getting jumped by other people on the street. Taking the time to get involved at a shelter, soup kitchen, fundraiser, or even using your professional skills can be a win-win for the community and your soul. A good start to understanding homelessness is to take the time to learn about the connection between poverty, racism, and health (hint: it’s a little more complicated than just “get a job”).

My night with 5 Days for the Homeless was a really rewarding and surprisingly fun experience! Most of my professional and personal life is spent working on community engagement and social/environmental justice, but it was so rejuvenating to actually be outside and experience people’s generosity and struggles first hand.

Although I’m a tourist to this situation and actual people on the streets have so much stacked against them, I hope this has helped to raise awareness and funds for community organizations that help those in need.

Some of the Concordia 5 Days for the Homeless Team (photo from 5 Days for the Homeless — Montreal)
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