COVER STORY: Cap U students brave the elements to raise awareness for homelessness
Last week, a small group of Capilano University students — an athlete, a thrill seeker, a filmmaker, a hippie, a small-town girl and a shelter employee — spent five days living in a doorway to raise awareness for homelessness.
They asked for donations and time to talk about issues from passersby and they were given some wild weather to brave.
At times, it was fun. At others, frustrating. But each participant left the campaign a little different than when they arrived. Not all, maybe, with a perfect understanding of what it’s like to be homeless, but with an idea of how easy it is to suffer such a fate. And, how cold and lonely that life can be.
Here are their stories.
Brandon Hofmarks, 25, international business
A sore back and sore hips aren’t the most pleasing sensations to wake up to. Expected ones, though, when all you have separating you from the pavement are a few sheets of cardboard and some newspapers.
What’s harder to deal with, says Brandon Hofmarks, is the realization that some people simply don’t want to take a few seconds of their day to talk, regardless of what you have to say.
“The people that do stop are positive. They offer up food and ask questions,” he says.
“Others don’t even acknowledge us. Some people don’t care. And they know this isn’t real but they still don’t stop.”
Hofmarks, a mountain-biking, rock-climbing Squamish resident, didn’t grow up with much money. The son of a single mom — who, incidentally, works at a shelter in the mountain town — Hofmarks learned early that he couldn’t have everything the others had. But, he told himself, if he could land a gig that had a decent salary he could leave those problems behind.
After high school, that’s precisely what he put his mind to. Hofmarks studied nautical sciences at BCIT’s Marine Campus and after graduation worked fixing vessels all over the world. And he guessed right, it was good pay.
The globetrotting life, however, proved tough. Hofmarks was always gone. So, he decided to go to back to school.
But what made him give up his bedroom for five days?
“We can all be homeless easily. I’ve been telling people how close we all are,” says Hofmarks.
“Homeless people are all just normal people.”
Liam “Danger” Park, 20, arts and entertainment management
Liam Park is a self-proclaimed seeker, an asker of questions.
After high school, he hitchhiked from Kelowna to Toronto, on a quest to see the country. And a Greyhound just wouldn’t do.
If you’re lucky, you might meet a person on bus, Park says. Scoring a ride from a stranger, however, forces you to make a new friend each time.
“It was great; hitchhiking is a way more interesting way to travel,” he says.
“And I love talking to strangers, that’s probably why I got into so many cars with them.”
Since Park arrived at Cap U in September, he’s been writing stories for the campus paper, the Capilano Courier. It was through his contacts there that he found out about the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign.
The idea caught his attention immediately. Park thrives on navigating the uncomfortable and sleeping on the ground certainly fit that bill. It didn’t take long for him to sign up.
“I never want to be normal. I’ve failed when I become normal,” he says.
“And I want to break norms. When I’m downtown, I see so many homeless. It’s weird because there’s no norm other than to look away. But where’s the sense of community? I think we’d be better off if we spoke to the homeless. Homelessness is an overwhelming issue, but I want to know more about it. I want to make it less overwhelming.”
Dolly Reno, 21, film studies
Dolly Reno grew up a lot faster than most people. Maybe too fast.
As a teenager, Reno wound up in an abusive relationship — one that put her in the hospital. Unfortunately, when she got out she was lost. She was ashamed. And she had nowhere to go.
So, a Montreal park bench became home.
“It’s a struggle for me being here,” Reno says, pausing.
“It brings up some feelings. I shouldn’t have been in that situation and I didn’t use any of the resources available to me at the time. I like 5 Days because we’re saying ‘We’re here to help.’”
The thing about ending up on the streets, she adds, is that you don’t know how you got there. You’ve endured a string of hardships, some almost unthinkable, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong.
But Reno’s one of the lucky ones. A few years ago, her father came to her rescue, packed her bags and brought her out west. She was given a home again and she’s since discovered filmmaking, something she says has helped her find her voice.
All last week, Reno turned the camera on her comrades, detailing the ins and outs of their time outside. The footage will eventually become a documentary of the campaign.
“It’s empowering, something that I feel can help make change,” she says of making documentaries.
“I enjoy all film but I really like docs.”
Sage Birley, 18, global stewardship
It’s hard to imagine anyone not recognizing the silver peace sign Sage Birley has hanging from one of his dreadlocks, let alone an entire group. But when Birley travelled to Ghana last year to build a school, that’s exactly what he encountered.
“The kids started asking me about my peace sign and I realized they didn’t know what it was,” says Birley.
“They had never even heard the word but they were so peaceful by nature. We were in Ghana for about a month and by the end they were saying ‘Peace.’”
It was then, Birley figures, that he really started getting it together. A few years prior, though, things were more confusing for the Fort St. John native. He knew he felt passionately about international development and he’d grown a distaste for the money-hungry ways of western society, but he felt stuck, complicit in a system he didn’t believe in.
In 2010, Birley visited El Salvador — his first trip out of his hometown — and he was struck by the culture. Family was paramount there and he liked it. People made unimaginable sacrifices for their loved ones. In one instance, Birley met a man who ate only tortillas and cheese in order to save enough money to pay for his brother’s education.
But the people he met envied him for his life in Canada. Why?
“The really scary thing was that they thought if they worked they could be just like us. So I went through a dark period before I decided to make myself a billboard for my beliefs,” says Birley.
“And this campaign has really tied into my experiences overseas. I was ignorant to issues here, too. This has been my chance to get more informed about homelessness, take down fear and bridge the gap.”
Melanda Danenhower, 21, global stewardship
One of the hardest things about city life is that people just don’t talk. Back home, says Melanda Danenhower, it’s just easier to leave your hand up in a constant wave because you know everyone and everyone says hi.
She never dared say it when she was a kid, but she loved her hometown. Danenhower’s parents are organic fruit farmers, growing fields of apples and pears that she spent her childhood summers picking.
That’s life in Cawstin, B.C.
Not so here, of course. But what the city lacks in friendliness, it makes up for in eye candy. People here, she stresses, are “enthralling.”
“Everyone can be as different as they want to be,” she says, smiling.
Like her colleague Liam Park, Danenhower saw the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign as a way to break with routine, a shock to the sometimes humdrum system. And it’s been that.
Harder, though, has been understanding the effect their statement has made.
“I’m having a hard time figuring out my role. I feel like we’re a poster and I don’t know what to think of the generosity,” she says. “Because we’re not homeless. We keep getting asked about our experience sleeping outside for five days but we’re just sleeping outside. I can’t speak to being homeless.”
The experience hasn’t been lesson-free, however. It’s just the moral of this story is one Danenhower grew up with.
“People need to talk with each other. A guy keeps coming around here with soup, I’ve been here twice when he’s come,” she says.
“He hangs out, chats and leaves. This would be a richer place if we all ate with someone new everyday.”
Allie Livesey, 24, global stewardship
Port Hope, Ont., was home but Allie Livesey’s been moving around most of her life.
She was 13 when she first visited B.C., on a trip with her best friend. She fell in love. It would be a few years before Livesey came back, this time as part of the youth charity organization Katimavik. She stayed in Trail, B.C., with the group and knew then she would eventually call the province home.
And, through Katimavik, she also learned of Capilano University’s global stewardship program. Livesey’s now in her second year at the school.
“I kind of wanted to go back,” she says.
“And this just clicked.”
Awareness is the core tenet to Livesey’s involvement with the 5 Days campaign. She works at the Squamish Helping Hands Society — a drop-in centre and emergency shelter for area homeless — and sees first hand the need for action. And she wants others to see that too.
But, like Danenhower, Livesey says it hasn’t been easy. Their group’s been given more help than they anticipated and were, at times, more than well-stocked for food. If only that were the case for those who didn’t have a finite window on the streets.
“I’m a believer in caring for others. I decided to do this because I’m concerned about the homeless, in particular youth,” says Livesey.
“I just can’t imagine people my age, people just like me, homeless. I can’t even fathom it. We’re doing it, but we’re not. I know on Friday I can go home.”