Posted on: September 1st, 2022. By: Kim Zarzour, thestar.com, Original Article.
With little to do during the pandemic lockdowns, three university students were chatting on social media about what they’d heard in the news, how homeless people were being hit harder than most by COVID-19.
Kanish Baskaran and Nicholas Hamzea of Markham, and Annie Li of Aurora, were not surprised.
They’d volunteered with front-line organizations that serve the homeless population and knew the barriers — insufficient space in shelters, transportation hurdles to/from medical facilities, difficulty obtaining or renewing health ID cards — that kept individuals from masking, vaccinating and physical distancing.
But they also knew that few of their peers knew.
Growing up in York Region, there was little opportunity to learn about homelessness.
Maybe, they thought, they could talk with their peers, address these gaps in knowledge and help reduce stigma and stereotypes.
If it’s done in a non-threatening way, rather than adults lecturing, they thought they could make a difference.
They developed an educational workshop with help from experts and mentors that simplified homelessness into bite-sized pieces, incorporating fun, interactive activities, and encouraged attendees to put their passion into action assembling care kits for residents of the Blue Door Emergency Housing Facility,
Funded by a $5,000 York Region District School Board grant, the first of these workshops was held at Bayview Secondary School in June.
It was a “resounding success,” one they hope will be a springboard for similar, future workshops throughout York Region and the rest of the province.
Almost 150 students showed up for the after-school event in Richmond Hill. Students at the school, who’d created their own school-based chapter, volunteered to help with the event and shared their new knowledge on social media, proving that peer-to-peer initiatives can indeed lead to change.
“We were particularly inspired by our conversations with Dr. Kaitlin Schwan, director of the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, who highlighted the impact such grassroots initiatives can have on disassembling stereotypes early on,” Li says.
It’s hard to say what age those stereotypes begin. Schwan says studies show very young children, when they see a homeless person, respond with empathy and want to help.
But somewhere along the road to adulthood, children absorb societal beliefs that blame people for their homelessness. The compassion is erased and stigma cemented in.
Students and teachers may not understand that a classmate whose hygiene is lacking could be without a home and unable to shower, or a student who appears unfocussed at school may be staying awake all night on the street.
“So many young people say ‘I didn’t know what homelessness was. I didn’t know that young people could be homeless. I didn’t know how I would get help,” says Schwan, who is senior researcher with Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University.
Health for Homeless is incredibly important, she says. “It opens up the conversation, raises awareness that homelessness is something that happens to young people, that it’s a societal failure to provide adequate housing, and there are resources for young people.
“What was really beautiful about what these folks did; such an act of solidarity for kids who attend the presentation and are experiencing housing need, to see their peers standing up expressing care and interest in creating better conditions for them in the world.”
And for a generation that worries they’ll never be able to afford a home, this may be their opportunity to start a youth-led movement around housing access and our broken housing system, she says.
Michael Braithwaite agrees.
The CEO of Blue Door took part in the Bayview workshop he’d like to see it in all high schools.
“Imagine the impact of youth talking to youth and this being a daily discussion. Would it create a groundswell of youth demanding change as they reach voting age?
“This generation is way more woke … They’re not a passive generation. They want to be part of the solution.”