A journalism student’s wake-up call: first time reporting about homelessness

… Or how NOT to be a journalist

During reading week, I spent my Wednesday afternoon at the Abri de la Rive-Sud (ARS), an emergency shelter for homeless persons based in Longueuil. To be clear, I wasn’t there as a volunteer, I was there to complete a photojournalism assignment.

At the end of the day, I came out of this experience with two conclusions:

  1. I am not ready to be a “real” journalist.
  2. I am an even worse person than I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot more than that during my visit. I have met great people and the ARS is an organization worthy of imitation. However, that is not what I am here to talk about.

On March 3, I did everything a professional journalist shouldn’t do.

For starters, I let social anxiety win and wasted way too much time thinking: how do I approach people without being invasive? Do I look like I’m taking myself too seriously? Do I look serious enough? What if I ask dumb questions? What if I do/say/think the wrong thing?

I was so scared of disturbing people that I shied away from asking more questions and ended up cutting corners. I even refrained from recording some interviews because I was afraid of asking people experiencing homelessness if I could put a microphone in their face. Thankfully, I only had to take pictures and gather enough information to write captions, but if I were to produce an extensive piece of journalism on the subject, there would be major holes in my story.

As an example, take Mr. A, who lost his job and his home due to COVID-19. Even though he did not seem to mind giving details about his life prior to the pandemic, I could not gather the courage to ask him: Why him, why now? What happened that made him unable to stay afloat, like many others did thanks to governmental support like the CERB or Employment Insurance?

Should I have pushed for more information?

At the end of the day, I talked to an employee at the ARS who made a comment that really made me regret not asking those questions to Mr. A. I don’t remember the exact words (always record your interviews, kids!), but the person said that, to become homeless — with no previous history — in the specific context of the pandemic, you almost “have to want it.” Referring to the government’s laxity in terms of monetary aid distribution, the employee told me that COVID-19 had actually made some of their clients better off.

“You have to want it” ???

I was so shocked by the comment that I froze. It was the last thing I thought I would hear from a social worker. I think they were able to read the disbelief in my eyebrows because they then took it upon themselves to specify that they were specifically referring to the current situation. At least, that’s what I understood… but instead of making sure that I had well interpreted the comment, I just stared in silence trying to process what had been said.

Whether it is because I didn’t want to be a burden for the employees who had “real” work to do or because I didn’t want to disrespect the few residents who were willing to talk to me, I shot myself in the foot by not digging deep enough for answers. By not addressing those missing pieces of truth, I threw the journalistic mandate in the trash and did not do justice to anyone who agreed to take part in this project.*

And here is another big no-no for all newbie journalists (and I guess people in general): I forgot to set aside any preconceived ideas.

I consider myself very open-minded, but as a person who was brought up in a very sheltered middle-class environment, I was never inclined to talk with people experiencing homelessness beyond the usual brief greetings.

At the ARS, I got to speak with Mr. B, who became homeless in 2014 and has been on and off the streets since then. He told me about his last psychotic episode and how different the situation is in Longueuil compared to Montreal. He was very articulate, perfectly lucid, and completely open when talking about his difficulties with substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Our exchange lasted a bit less than 25 minutes and let me tell you: it was the first normal conversation I have had with a stranger for a very long time. By “normal” I mean that I did not have to pretend to be someone I am not (i.e. a pseudo-reporter, a top student or a person who knows what they are doing). In fact, I was struck by how much Mr. B and I have in common, which ended up making me lose my journalist goggles. Obviously, I am not even close to knowing the same kind of struggles he did, but it only confirmed what I already knew: anyone could end up in this situation.

When I arrived on location, I had my main question ready and had prepared myself for the most plausible answer. Since the pandemic had made a lot of people lose their jobs and become isolated, I thought they would all say that COVID-19 had made the situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

But my ignorant self had not thought of one thing: the homeless were already isolated. For many of them, nothing has changed. For many of them, things could not get much worse. When talking to Mr. B, I learned that most people in the homeless community did not spend their time worrying about the pandemic.

“An acquaintance of mine once told me that he had taken so many drugs in his life that COVID wouldn’t want to get into his body,” he said.

Under which privileged rock was I living to think that people without homes would experience the pandemic in the same way as everyone else?

In the end, a lot of the things I thought I knew about the issue were proven wrong when I visited the ARS. And all I can do about it is to tell all five people who will check out my not-so-thorough school project.

When I started working on it at the beginning of the semester, my intention was to achieve something truly meaningful. I agree; it was a bit delusional and I might have aimed a bit too high for a first-year student without any relevant experience.

Still, since I have started studying journalism, the same thought keeps lingering in my mind: maybe I am not made for journalism.

In two months, I visited two homeless outreach organizations and have been asked twice if I was a new volunteer or a recently employed social worker. Both times when I answered “no,” I was overwhelmed by the same feeling: guilt.  

If I cannot become a successful journalist, will I keep feeling bad for reporting on issues that I don’t have any real power to eradicate? If I wanted to change the world so much, shouldn’t I seek to actively help others instead of writing about things that I wish would change?

Putting that little existential crisis aside, I have to say that I am not ready to give up on journalism just yet. After all, I’ve only been studying in journalism for six months. Maybe this time I was not as good as professional journalist Christopher Curtis who’s been covering homelessnessness consistently for years, but facing these kinds of challenges so early in my student career only motivates me to do better. To be honest, I don’t think I will ever be able to grow into this groundbreaking investigative journalist I had envisioned myself becoming. But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

*This is why I decided not to mention my sources’ real names. They have signed a waiver regarding a specific assignment, but they were not informed that their story would be repurposed in this context. This article is about my own mistakes and “journey,” and until I am able to reach out to the persons involved, names will not be disclosed.


Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin

A very COVID Rosh Hashanah

Jewish holidays are fundamentally communal activities, but with COVID, they’ve become a time to reflect on what traditions are most important to us

As the summer started to wane and the pandemic didn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, I started to wonder how Jewish people around the world would celebrate the High Holidays.

The High Holidays are the most important weeks of the Jewish calendar. Starting with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it’s a time to welcome a new year by reflecting on the past year’s transgressions and asking for forgiveness from those in your life and then, ultimately, from God.

Growing up, Rosh Hashanah meant taking the day off of school, getting dressed up, and attending synagogue with my parents. The services were long and mostly felt pretty boring at the time, minus the sprinkling of cantorial songs that would make the synagogue swell with harmonizing voices. After three long hours, the congregation would be dismissed and all the families would wish each other a “שָׁנָה טוֹבָה” (shana tova, i.e. happy new year) as they slowly made their way out of the sanctuary.

To me, the High Holidays were a fundamentally communal experience. Growing up in a small southern synagogue, it was the time for the Jewish community to connect through Torah study, Tashlich and Yom Kippur break-fast potlucks that served to, well, break our fasts. But, for obvious reasons, these traditions are more difficult this year. Even if I wasn’t separated from my childhood synagogue by over 1,000 kilometres, Rosh Hashanah would still be a fairly isolated activity — but I knew I wanted to celebrate the new year in some way.

The idea of not being able to celebrate the holidays due to COVID left me feeling helpless. Sure, there would be Zoom services, but watching Torah readings on the holiest days of the year through a laptop screen just felt a tad dystopian. Plus, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that old Jewish people and technology don’t go together well.

So the question became: how can I celebrate Rosh Hashanah in a way that is COVID-safe and fulfills my needs for spirituality and community? I thought about this for a while until one night when I had dinner with my roommate, who was discussing making her mother’s empanadas recipe for Chilean Independence Day. I loved her idea of taking a traditional food in her family and sharing it with us, her Montreal family. That’s when I decided to repay the favour, and make a Rosh Hashanah meal for our friends.

Sharing food is a big deal in Jewish culture. Between the many laws governing food preparation (Kashrut), the commandment to feed the hungry and the several holidays and festivals that rotate around a meal, Jews are very concerned with what and how we eat. Rosh Hashanah is no exception to this rule. While it isn’t as food centric as Passover and Tu BiShvat, there are still specific foods that you’re commanded to eat, such as apples and honey to ring in a “sweet” new year.

All around, I wanted to use Rosh Hashanah as a way to connect not just to my spiritual Judaism, but to my cultural Judaism as well. So, I decided to go all out with the greatest hits of Ashkenazi cuisine. Propelled by what I can only attribute to some sort of generational feminine spirit, in the span of one day I prepared matzo ball soup, potato kugel, tzimmes, a challah and honey cake. Your bubbe could never.

A few wine-toting friends arrived around 7 p.m. Surprisingly, all my dishes turned out even better than planned (which never happens to me). I recited the prayers over the candles and challah, then we sat around my small apartment table and ate, drank and talked for hours. Even though only one of my friends came from a Jewish background, that didn’t matter. To me, ringing in the new year is more about connecting with your Judaism, whatever that may look like, and surrounding yourself with those who can help you be your best self for the upcoming year.

Sharing my culture with those I care about outside of my family like I did this year wasn’t something I would have even thought to do before COVID. Yet, as annoying as so   cial distancing has been, I’m grateful that it forced me to look inward for my Judaism and take my religious practice into my own hands.

Hopefully, next year social distancing won’t factor so heavily into all of our actions, but at this point, there’s no way to know. What I do know now is that it’s okay if my traditions change. Change doesn’t necessarily have to mean a downgrade, just a rethinking of what is most important to me.


Photo by Aviva Majerczyk

Student Life

An ode to international exchanges

How travel and school make for the best combination

I found it weird that I didn’t freak out when I said my goodbyes. I’ve never lived away from home, but here I was, about to embark on an international exchange to Sydney, Australia. As calm as ever, I told my parents and my sister that I love them, and that I’d be back in six months.

I think it’s all the paperwork and extensive planning that got to me.

Photo by writer

Even as I was waiting for the shuttle at Sydney Airport it didn’t feel real yet. Those first few days were a blur. Getting settled in, meeting my roommates, figuring out how public transit works in a new country.  Even doing groceries felt like an episode of Survivor, trying to figure out where the damn ketchup was in the grocery store

Living on campus made me feel like I was finally experiencing university the traditional way.  Only living five minutes away from class was definitely a bonus, but I knew that there’d only be a certain level of learning in my journalism tutorials. The rest would be acquired out in the real world, where spiders are the size of my hand. Aussies are definitely the nicest people on Earth, although their knowledge about Canada isn’t always spot on.

Luckily, I was blessed with amazing roommates from the U.K., the States and other parts of Australia. I consider myself a shy person, so interacting with new people, the ones you share a fridge with no less, took some getting used to. I was initially concerned that I’d be paired up with some crazies but before long my guard was down and we were all laughing at Friends reruns.

Those relationships ended up being the core of my exchange because these were the people I travelled and shared adventures with. We took advantage of every spare moment we had to see something new. I clearly remember the first time we saw the Sydney Opera House, and how we had to pinch ourselves to believe our luck. I recall going to the famous Bondi Beach, thinking I’ll try surfing, but then being bitch-slapped by a wave within two seconds and quickly reconsidering that idea.

The whole city exuded a laid-back attitude that I wanted to emulate.  My theory is that they don’t have a proper winter to dampen their mood (Australians might as well remove the word “winter” entirely from their calendars; come to Montreal in January, then you’ll know winter).

Not only does the city have a bunch to offer, but the mountains and nature aren’t that far away. The view from the Blue Mountains is breathtaking. And the trek up there will make you realize that yes; you are out of shape and should probably stop eating all those Tim Tams.

What I realized early on is that it’s alright to embrace your inner tourist.  Ask questions, get lost, that’s what makes every moment worthwhile. Also, there is never enough gushing over kangaroos. Every Aussie within hearing range will realize you’re a foreigner, but dammit, kangaroos are amazing creatures and would be awesome pets (already planning on naming mine Chandler, no shame)!

Another important life lesson is knowing that travelling brings out the best and worst in others and in yourself.  You will see the extent of how little they appreciate the presence of bugs and birds in their vicinity. You will also see how they react in near-death experiences (there’s nothing like your plane being struck by lightning to make you mistakenly think the engine has blown up and you’re going down). I’ve never felt so badass as when I snorkelled in the Great Barrier Reef or when I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and did a little dance with my friends once we reached the top. And I never thought that seeing a dolphin up close while whale watching would overwhelm me to the point of babbling incomprehensibly.

If I had known beforehand that I would become so emotionally attached to my newfound friends and this country, I would have prepared myself with better coping mechanisms. Everyone’s exchange experience is unique, and that made leaving that much harder. I was that person you see at the airport, crying uncontrollably and hugging people for way too long.  It was on the 20-hour flight back to Canada that I realized why I hadn’t cried when I left my family. On some level, I knew that these would be the best months of my life and that I would make lifelong friendships that I would never take for granted.


The walking wounded: the road to recovery

Concordia soccer player recounts her rehabilitation from ACL surgery

On a hot Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining down on the beautiful moss green turf at the Bois-de-Boulogne soccer complex. Sporting the white and green colours of the Laval Conquerants AAA soccer team, Amy Pietrangelo, myself, and our team were doing everything within our power to win. In the first 30 minutes of the first half, Pietrangelo received a tackle from a player on the other team.

As I watched the tackle and saw her go down I remember thinking that she won’t be getting up from that tackle. Yet to my surprise she did.

“I got up from it and continued to play, but my knee felt unstable,” she recalls.

As she played on she realized something wasn’t right and pulled herself off the field.

“I remember that the physiotherapist who was treating me kept on saying it wasn’t an ACL tear.”

Even though Pietrangelo was told she hadn’t torn anything, those comforting words were proven wrong when she got the results back from her MRI, confirming that she had indeed torn her ACL in her left knee.

The ACL, also known as the anterior cruciate ligament, is one of the four primary ligaments around the knee joint and is an important stabilizer of the knee. It’s a band of tissue that connects the femur to the tibia and prevents the tibia from moving out from beneath the femur. ACL tears among young female athletes are becoming very common today, especially in high caliber athletes, like Pietrangelo.

Once it is torn there is no possibility of it healing on its own, but there are many different treatment options available. Most experts recommend an operation, which is exactly what most athletes decide to do.

This type of severe injury generally occurs during high impact sports activities like soccer, basketball, gymnastics, and many others, and seems to be more common in young female athletes. Most female athletes end up tearing their ACL by a simple pivot, the cause of an excessive inward turning of the lower leg or by a hyperextension of the knee, when the knee is beyond its normal 10 degrees, forcing the lower leg excessively forward in relation to the upper leg. It is also possible to tear it by impact.

Immediately after an athlete tears their ACL, their knee may swell, feel unstable and become too painful to put weight on. Most athletes hear a ‘pop’ when it tears, which is a key signal that something is severely damaged. However, it is possible that none of these symptoms occur.

“I didn’t hear any pop and my knee only got a little swollen and felt unstable. When I got home I couldn’t lift my leg, but a week later I was walking on it. I didn’t think I had done any serious damage to my knee,” recounts Pietrangelo.

Researchers are investigating the reason this injury is more common in female athletes. One of the reasons being explored is hormonal difference.

“There has been some research that shows that due to our hormone levels during menstruation, our ligaments become looser.  The body goes through this process in order to prepare for childbirth,” says Michelle Beckles, a Dawson College athletic therapist.

Another possible reason is the anatomic difference between men and women. Women have a wider pelvis, a different Q-angle (the measurement of the knee angle), a different size of the ACL, and the size of the intercondylar notch (where the ACL crosses the knee joint).

Finally, women have different biomechanic movements in the knee area when it comes to pivoting, jumping, and landing.

“It is more common because of the way women’s bodies are formed. We have wider hips, which changes the biomechanics of the knees. These changes cause more stress on the knee in certain positions,” says Beckles.

There are three different possibilities for the ACL to be reconstructed: the hamstring tendon graft procedure, the patellar tendon graft procedure, and lastly the LARS procedure, which is a synthetically constructed ligament.

“The most common procedure that surgeons usually perform for reconstructing the ACL is from the hamstring tendon. This is also the one I would recommend because most athletes who have this surgery have less complications post-op and usually do not require another operation,” says Beckles.

It is extremely hard for athletes to get the news about such a severe injury. I tore my ACL a few years back and I remember the day I found out very clearly. After sitting in the waiting room at the Lakeshore General Hospital for an hour, it was finally my turn to talk with the surgeon.

As I crutched into the room with my mom walking next to me, I felt my heart pounding, fearing what he would tell me. As I sat on the black padded table in the middle of the room watching the doctor look at my file and review my MRI results, I was too nervous to say anything.

“I don’t have good news for you,” he said. “You tore your ACL.”

That was all it took for the tears to come pouring out of my eyes. Everything that came out of the doctor’s mouth after was a blur. I felt like my world had come crashing down; he had just confirmed my worst fear.

When Pietrangelo realized the severity of her injury, she began looking at her options.

“I started looking at every possible option available to me with my family. I knew we had to pick the right one for me at the time because I was in the middle of trying to make the U-17 Canadian national team.”

She ended up choosing to get the LARS procedure.

“Because I was trying to make the national team, I needed my recovery time to be as short as possible. I needed to get back on the field fast and going with this procedure cut my recovery time down tremendously. I didn’t just jump into it though, I sat down with different surgeons, doctors, physiotherapists, and did a lot of research before I made up my mind,” she said.

After discussing it with all the doctors and athletic therapists, it was decided that I would go with the hamstring tendon graft and deal with the long recovery. I chose this because it was the most recommended and because, LARS is extremely expensive and is guaranteed to tear again. I didn’t want to go through another operation.

The road to full recovery after an ACL operation is long and hard. It takes time and commitment on the athlete’s part if they ever want to get back to where they used to be in their sport. As an athlete who went through the rehab process, I can definitely say it is one of the longest processes that I’ve ever gone through. When you get the hamstring or the patellar tendon graft surgery, the recovery can be six to nine months. But, if you follow through and do as you’re told, recovery can be smoother and possibly even quicker. However, you don’t want to rush back either.

“We need to make sure that athletes regain complete mobility and strength in their muscles before easing back into their sport. If they rush they risk tearing it again,” says Andrew Roberts, an athletic therapist at Kinatex West Island.

There are also precautions that athletes can take to try to prevent this injury from happening. They can improve their training conditions, by doing strengthening and stability exercises; aerobic conditioning; jump training; as well as balance training; known to help decrease the risk of a female athlete tearing their ACL. Female athletes also need to strengthen their hamstring and quadricep muscles. Strengthening hip muscles can also decrease the risk of tearing the ACL, according to Beckles.

Furthermore, when the sport involves jumping, athletes need to be taught to use the right techniques and learn how to land safely because if the knee collapses inward upon landing it’s more likely for them to sustain an ACL injury.

If an athlete gets surgery and follows the proper directions, they will be able to get back out on the field quicker. When Pietrangelo got back on the soccer field she was overjoyed and extremely excited.

“It was the greatest feeling. That first touch of the ball came back so naturally, like I hadn’t been off for four months.”

Though this type of injury may seem career ending, the fact of the matter is, with today’s technology, the operation is simpler and effective and allows female and male athletes to get back to their sport and still perform at the level they were before the operation.

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