Students shouldn’t be the only ones helping the needy

Concordia students pretend to be homeless to help the homeless. Photo by David Vilder.

Concordia students pretend to be homeless to help the homeless. Photo by David Vilder.

A number of students camping outside the Hall Building made the street their home last week, raising money for Dans la Rue, an organization which provides assistance to Montreal’s homeless youth. While the nationwide Five Days for the Homeless initiative was surely for a good cause, and those who participated should be commended for their dedication and perseverance, the sight of a bunch of university students essentially pretending to be homeless may have offended some. Simulating being homeless trivializes homelessness and might be considered to be in extremely poor taste. While this was surely not the intention of the organizers or participants associated with the event, that result was unavoidable.

Those who took part in the Five Days for the Homeless campaign did not spend five days outside in late winter and run the  risk of offending the sensibilities of many Concordia students for no reason. Dans la Rue is in dire need of money to fund the excellent and very necessary work they do with Montreal’s homeless youth. This is in part due to the fact that they rely on individual donations for 94 per cent of their annual operating budget, with various government bodies contributing only the remaining six per cent.

The fact that Dans la Rue receives so little money from any level of government is to a large extent a result of that organization’s policies. According to Sue Medleg, the organization’s co-ordinator of development, Dans la Rue sees government funding as often inconsistent, and prefers to rely on individual donations. While this is understandable, the fact remains that government funding, however inconsistent, has the capacity to involve amounts of money that simply cannot be matched by counting on individual donations, and can therefore make a much more significant impact on homelessness.

Photo by David Vilder

It is clear that no level of government active in Montreal is doing enough to provide relief to the homeless, or to provide funding to those organizations that do. Considering it is the duty of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments to provide assistance and essential services to Canadians under their jurisdictions, this represents a major failure of governance. If those dedicated students who were involved in the Five Days for the Homeless campaign must pretend to be homeless next year, perhaps they should do so in front of City Hall, the National Assembly building, and Parliament Hill instead of at Concordia. In doing so, they could petition those in Canada who have both the responsibility and capability to consistently provide the significant amount of funds that are required to support groups such as Dans la Rue to the extent that their excellent and essential work both requires and deserves.

Improving the situation of the homeless is not the responsibility of private citizens, or even of groups such as Dans la Rue, but of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments.


  1. It’s easy to be a cynic. Very easy. It is easy to say that homelessness is someone else’s responsibility, that ordinary people – students – can’t do anything to help, that they’re offensive if they try. Alex Woznica in last week’s Concordian said that “improving the situation of the homeless is not the responsibility of private citizens” but of local and Big Government. I think he’s dead wrong.
    It would be wonderful to live in a utopian fantasy where ‘the government’ solves everyone’s problems. It would be so easy. Unfortunately, power and politics don’t really work that way. Power tends to help the powerful, not the people stuck on the street. In case we’ve forgotten the history of the last half-century, change for the better comes from ‘private citizens’, especially activist students who are brave enough to speak out and stand in solidarity with those less fortunate: this is called civil society.
    The best principles of civil society were on display during the five nights for the homeless, when students stood in solidarity with – not in imitation of – Montreal’s homeless youth. Dans La Rue provides immediate relief for kids on the street and has innovative grassroots programs that are more effective than any top-down government remedy.
    Until we find ourselves in a magical fairy land where the state, with no pressure from ‘private citizens’ starts supporting shelters instead of shale gas and maybe little green elves wipe our asses after we go to the bathroom too, my place will be with Dans La Rue and Concordia students who care, not with cynical editorialists waiting for a utopia.

    Menachem Freedman
    Councilor for arts and Science / Student Senator

    1. Hi Menachem,

      While I certainly understand how you found my article to be cynical, I would argue that it was not. I was not arguing that helping the homeless was someone else’s responsibility. Various levels of government represent us, and engage in actions that we as individuals, or even collective groups such as Dans La Rue simply do not have the power or resources to do. In that we elect the government, we are the government. I was arguing that the governmental arm of our collective selves is much better equipped to combat homelessness than groups such as Dans la Rue, especially if they do not solicit the government for significant funding.

      In my mind, rather than arguing for a “utopian fantasy,” I feel that I was merely calling on the various levels of government to fulfill the duties that it is supposed to fulfill. I was not calling for the government to set every single homeless person up with a job and an apartment, but simply to do more and spend more.

      Perhaps in keeping withyour own feelings regarding the homeless, and our individual responsibility to help them, you and your fellow CSU senators would be willing to open up CSU offices and all the great “student space” that I keep hearing about to the homeless. That sort of direct action would surely help Montreal’s homeless, especially during the winter months, and I’m sure it would enjoy widespread support from the student body.

      Alex Woznica
      The Concordian

  2. I would like to respond to Alex Woznica’s statement “Improving the situation of the homeless is not the responsibility of private citizens, or even of groups such as Dans la Rue, but of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments.” If you acknowledge that little has been done for homeless people then you are giving us one more reason to go on the streets and promote what is indeed a very good cause. Admittedly, a year ago, I had a similar reaction to the students sleeping on the streets, assuming they were “imitating” the homeless. This year I participated and raised a few hundred dollars together with individuals that didn’t feel that simply relying on the supposedly ‘almighty’ government is enough. Fair enough, ‘real’ homeless people do not go home after a night out under the stars, many of them due to people that have a mind set as follows: “Improving the situation of the homeless is not the responsibility of private citizens, or even of groups such as Dans la Rue, but of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments.” Now, we have two options: one being to continue living in denial about our very own potential as citizens or raising 35000 dollars to help the very community in which we live.

    Julia Milz

  3. Re: Students Shouldn’t be the only ones helping the needy

    Alex Woznica’s opinion piece on the participation of students in “Five Days for the Homeless” managed to be both cynical and incoherent. The students who slept outside for five cold nights acted in solidarity with the homeless, not in pretence or poor taste. They also raised over 35,000 dollars for what even Woznika grudgingly agrees is a very worthy cause. While it is true that the government should do more to address homelessness and to support Dans La Rue, it is not the case that private citizens are therefore absolved from responsibility. Indeed, the actions of private citizens can draw attention to worthy causes and can spur the government to further action–ask Stephen Harper, who followed the “Five Days for the Homeless” team on twitter. I am proud of the ten students from my department who braved the cold and the rain in order to support this worthy cause. To my mind, they understand the role of the citizen very well,

    Ariela Freedman
    Associate Professor and Principal
    Liberal Arts College, Concordia University

    1. Hi Ariela,

      I regret that my agreeing that Dans La Rue does good work seemed “grudgingly” to you, as I certainly did not intend it that way. I agree that they provide some excellent, and unfortunately very necessary services.

      I think that where our ideas obviously diverge is in who has the responsibility to provide relief to the homeless. In my mind, I think that it is shameful that the different levels of government that are able to provide essential and costly services to millions of Canadians are unable, or more likely unwilling to assist the relatively few number of Canadians experiencing homelessness. I think that it is ridiculous that organizations such as Dans La Rue are even necessary in a society as affluent as ours, and in a country with a government that is as “big” as ours.

      When I pay my taxes, I do so with the understanding that a portion of that money is going to provide essential services and a certain standard of living for all Canadians. Clearly, homeless Canadians are not getting the full benefit that should be provided by my and your tax dollars. My article was simply an argument that instead of raising money so that various levels of government can continue to neglect the homeless, that organizations such as Dans La Rue, and initiatives such as Five Days for the Homeless should focus their efforts on getting various levels of government to fulfill their responsibilities as governments.

      Alex Woznica
      The Concordian

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