4 Nights 4 the Homeless

By Nenad Tomanic

Three of my classmates and I are teaming up to join the fight against homelessness on Calgary’s streets.

Our group, 4 Nights 4 the Homeless, started out as a project in our international literature class, but has since evolved into a fundraiser for the city’s homeless community. By camping out for four days and nights on campus while inviting passersbys to join us, we’re aiming to encourage people to experience the homeless lifestyle.

Now why in the world would we want to be temporarily homeless? After all, it will be both inconvenient and difficult. That’s precisely the point. The majority of Calgarians have never been homeless and cannot fathom the plight of so many that are down on their luck. The inspiration for the project comes from our desire to experience living outdoors in a Calgary winter as many homeless citizens do without the privilege of choice. Although living outside of MacEwan Students’ Centre for a few nights won’t give us the genuine experience ­– we’ll all have homes to retreat to– that is not our intention. We’re aiming to encourage fellow students to thrust themselves out of their comfort zones in order to have a more accurate understanding of what it’s like to have no home. While total understanding or sympathy is difficult without actually living on the streets, our group believes that it’s a step in the right direction.

We’ve decided to follow in the example of a man who has definitely stepped outside of his comfort zone. “Blanket Man” is famous on the streets of Wellington, New Zealand where a long time ago he decided to become homeless. That is, he has no permanent residence and almost no possessions. His real name is Ben Hana and the moniker “Blanket Man” refers to his way of dress. He wears a simple loin cloth and a carries with him a blanket everywhere he goes. He claims that he is a follower of the Maori sun-god Tama-nui-te-ra and wearing a loin cloth and having no residence is a decision based on religious devotion. Passersby sometimes bring him food and drink and there is a photo on the Internet of Blanket Man listening to his video iPod that he received as a gift from a supporter.

In some ways it would be nice to be Blanket Man. He doesn’t need to wake early every morning to go to a job he dislikes just so he can pay for things that he doesn’t need. He’s got no mortgage to worry about and no taxes to pay. He’s given up certain privileges and luxuries, but he no longer has the responsibilities that most adults do. In a way, that’s exactly what Blanket Man is all about– having and taking less, and learning to be content with it. In a way, 4 Nights 4 the Homeless is an attempt to emulate Blanket Man but on a local level. Of course, the circumstances of Blanket Man’s life are different from the majority of homeless people in the world. He chose to be homeless while many are forced into it.

The homeless lifestyle may be comfortable in New Zealand, but for Calgarians the decision is a little more complicated. There’s the whole winter issue to deal with. For most citizens, the long and freezing Calgary winter is unpleasant, but for those that have to face it in the outdoors, it’s brutal. Blanket Man is an inspiration to many, but his cause is more difficult to take up in our part of the world where temperatures can dip to-40 C. If you’re homeless in Calgary, it’s the climate that may break you. Worshipping the sun is all well and good in a place that sees a lot of it. Living in Calgary however, needs some kind of shelter to protect against the arctic air and winds. The City of Calgary does a count the number of homeless people within its borders every two years. Numbers are collected by relief centres and a physical count is done within the city. In 2006, the number of homeless people in Calgary was counted at 3,436. In 2008, the same count numbered 4,060. That’s a difference of 600 people, a substantial jump in two years. Ideally, all Calgarians, homeless or not, should be involved in identifying the reason for the increase. The Council could design a program that would count the number of people that are on the verge of losing their home so that further measures could be taken to decrease the amount of Calgarians becoming homeless every year.

Neglecting people who are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, running the risk of becoming homeless any day, will only contribute to the increase. Statistically, very few people in this city are actually homeless; 4,000 amounts to just under half a per cent. But numbers do not always measure the severity of problems on a personal level. The fact that our homeless population is relatively small should not discourage us from making an effort to deal with it or cause us to ignore it. Calgarians with homes have experiences of friends, or even family, that have recently become homeless and it is this group of people who are usually trying to recruit support to prevent more from losing their homes.

When I was young, I spent some time living in a warzone. What used to be the country of Yugoslavia was falling apart due to a civil war. Hundreds of people were losing their homes every day as they were fleeing bombs and gunfire. Even those that refused to leave were eventually forced to flee because their homes were destroyed by shells. My family was forced to run from the city and we spent a few months going to and from poorly constructed refugee shelters on the outskirts of town. Even in this sad situation I was fortunate enough to have distant cousins in the neighbouring then-province of Montenegro that would take me in along with my parents and my infant sister. My cousin’s farmhouse was small and barely supported us all, but at least we could call it home until the war died down. Those were a tough few years, but since moving to Canada my living situation has only improved and I am extremely grateful for my good fortune and find myself forgetting what it was like to be wandering from place to place, wondering if I’d have a place to sleep for the night. Part of my goal for joining this group is to remember those harsh times and to turn my thoughts to those that are living it now.

This is where the request for help comes in from the 4 Nights 4 the Homeless group.

“We are a small group of students on campus setting up a project to collect all kinds of donations for Calgary’s homeless which actually numbered about 4,060 as of last year,” said fellow group member Jessie Zanutig.

Our village of sorts will consist of sleeping bags and boxes to guard against the wind. The reason for the boxes is not to propagate the stereotype of homeless people living in boxes, but simply to gain the attention of fellow students.

“During the week of April 6th to the 10th all students are invited to come down to join us for an hour, a full day or more and to donate any money or materials that they feel they can,” said member Caitlin Wharton.

In the meantime, the participating students will attend class like normal and when not in class may organize games and other activities while collecting donations. Our group chose to relay all donations to the Calgary-based organization the Doorway. This centre offers support to young adults between the ages of 17-24. The program rewards self-initiative by helping individuals find cheap shelters and jobs. We chose the Doorway because we identified most with it. Those who receive help from the Doorway are people our own age who could easily be working or going to school with us if they had the means. Identification is a major part of our goal as we strive to at least be able to partially identify with those who live without a home.

It’s time for all Calgarians to throw ourselves into adverse situations of all kinds so that we may speak and act from experience. Forcing ourselves into more discomfort and hardship will cause sympathy and understanding to grow within. Truer understanding will result in more meaningful action relieve the homelessness problem in Calgary.

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