Winter Is Coming…But the Homeless are Already Here: A Call to Action for McGill Students to Give Back

I take the same route to and from campus every day. I notice the same neighbouring students walking to class with their trendy knapsacks and the same people sitting on the sidewalk with a cup in front, begging for spare change. Whether I am sweating from the blazing thirty-degree heat or, as Michael Jackson so eloquently put it, turning “up the collar on my favourite winter coat”, I cannot pretend to be blind to what is literally right in front of me.

There is an odd paradox when it comes to university students. On one hand, we are the seeds of a flourishing future, in the prime of our lives. We are fortunate enough to be getting an education at a world-class university and passionately eager to enter the grown up society. For McGill students in particular—in the city that has been voted the best student city in the world— we are hardly confined to the bounds of a university town. In fact, the case is quite the opposite. We are constantly exposed to the going-ons in the heart of the city. On the other hand, given McGill’s intense and competitive academic climate, we tend to be guilty of selfishness, be it regarding our personal lives as young adults, or, more likely, regarding our academic stresses. I too am guilty of this selfishness. But I would like to consider the following as a call to action, not just to myself, but to the McGill community at large.

While McGill provides certain services to society, from scientific research to architecture to human rights… we are perhaps reaching too far and instead need to adjust our focus to what is going on right at home.

McGill’s mission statement states that it strives to “carry out research and scholarly activity judged to be excellent by the highest international standards, and by providing service to society”. While McGill provides certain services to society, from scientific research to architecture to human rights (and the list goes on), we are perhaps reaching too far and instead need to adjust our focus to what is going on right at home. While McGill and most other Canadian universities put more focus on academic life than extracurricular life (frosh excluded), we nonetheless are offered a wide range of extracurricular activities, ranging from athletic and recreational sports clubs to religion and culture organizations.

As is the case with most universities with diverse student population, many of our extracurricular opportunities help us  express the wide chasms that exist in our school and society, be that religious, cultural, political or everything in between. While there are many subjects that divide McGill students, we should all be united by our love for the beautiful city and our compassion for its less fortunate inhabitants. Let helping the homeless be an opportunity for us to come together, with all of our brain power and our passion. It should be a way for us to express our gratitude to the Montreal community that has welcomed us for the past two centuries. We are meant to be more than just a school in Montreal, as we encapsulate so much of Montreal’s wider values within our school.

We live amidst a dire homelessness crisis. With hot days getting hotter and cold weather getting colder, there is no group more affected than the homeless population. As fall approaches, I am already beginning to shiver at the thought of Montreal’s harsh cold winters. Last year, we were fortunate to have a relatively warm winter (as I type this from the comfort of my heated bedroom), with an average low of negative ten degrees Celsius; This year, Montreal is predicted to be snowier than ever, with the coldest periods predicting to fall between late December and early January. While we are all vacationing, spending time with family, and celebrating the holidays, people will be sleeping on the streets of our adopted city—and the harsh reality is that some of them will literally freeze to death unless others respond to this call for action.

National reports say that at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year. And while there are varying degrees of homelessness, being on the street for any amount of time, be it during the winter or summer, is typically not a one-time occurrence. If it is difficult to envision what this number actually looks like, one need only journey down Sherbrooke Street to see the state of conditions in real time.

McGill Food and Dining services explained that they are a breakeven operation, and that “it would be difficult to turn these funds into donations”. The word “difficult” still rings in my ear.

I recently reached out to McGill food and dining services about a project a friend of mine and myself were interested in pursuing, and I was disappointed by the response that I received. Living in residences at McGill comes with a mandatory meal plan by-which every student must purchase an approximately $3,000 meal plan to use up by the end of their second year of study. Many students do not spend it all, as was the case for myself. I found myself buying way more than I could eat on a daily basis, just so that I would not waste my money, but I ended up wasting food instead.

I reached out with the idea of setting up a fund into which students could “donate” the unused money from their meal plans. The point would be to rally up a group of volunteers, take the money from this fund and buy food from the McGill cafeterias, so as to keep the profits within McGill, and distribute it to homeless people in the general downtown area—and eventually all over the city. This would give us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and create a real connection with the seemingly faceless individuals who make up this homeless community. There is so much that we can learn from this experience while helping others who struggle to survive each and every day.

McGill Food and Dining services explained that they are a breakeven operation, and that “it would be difficult to turn these funds into donations”. The word “difficult” still rings in my ear. Difficult is sleeping on the street in negative 20-degree weather. Difficult is not knowing when you are going to have your next meal. Difficult is having no place to call home. If people are still suffering from these circumstances on a daily basis, I am confident that we are in no position to be giving up on this opportunity, just because it may be “difficult”.

With Thanksgiving behind us, it is the perfect time to really figure out how to effectively give back to our beautiful Montreal community and those who reside in it, often on its streets.  Let’s show how truly grateful we really are this year: by helping our fellow citizens who are less fortunate than us.

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