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How Ryerson can address homelessness through academia

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By Lidia Abraha

Toronto’s university students, including groups on and around Ryerson, have ideas to help with the short and long-term effects of homelessness in Toronto, but some wonder if they are doing enough.

In 2015, two students from Ryerson and one from U of T launched City of Sleeping Bags. The project raised money to buy 100 sleeping bags to the estimated 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto’s streets and shelters. Last year, another student-run group, the Ryerson Marketing Association, partnered with them to distribute winter necessities and document the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

This year, the Ryerson TOgether student group began a campus-wide initiative to address homelessness by partnering with the Covenant House and Yonge Street Mission, two local charities working with youth experiencing homelessness downtown.

Students and community members are working together to find solutions, but what is Ryerson doing in response to the issue? Ryerson politics professor Cathy Crowe is a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness and said that Ryerson can always do more. Crowe received the Order of Canada last week for her decades-long of advocacy for those experiencing homelessness.

“There needs to be a better learning experience on homelessness,” said Crowe. “It’s not about walking down Yonge Street handing out socks. When students do that, I get really disappointed because that shows something is not happening in their program.”

Pascal Murphy is an instructor at Ryerson who focuses on homelessness, disasters and social and environmental justice. He’s been teaching the homelessness in Canadian society course for nine years, and agrees there’s a lot more Ryerson can do to change how the issue is taught in class.

“A part of our responsibility at Ryerson is to look at things not just from a critical perspective, but from a social justice perspective,” said Murphy. “It’s becoming overwhelmingly clear that one class on homelessness is not sufficient and we need to have more.”

Murphy’s class covers how poverty, health, history, violence, racialization, sex work and substance abuse relate to homelessness. The course has a community-based framework with traditional lectures and guest speakers who have experienced homelessness.

As a research-based institution, Murphy said more can be done to find solutions to homelessness through academia at Ryerson.

“It is also absolutely solvable. The Band-Aid approach to homelessness will create bigger problems in the long run and is not even cost effective. It’s less expensive and more humane to solve homelessness. I think this is where people get a little lost, but the reality is it’s more humane and more effective to build housing.”

Other universities in the GTA have resources for students experiencing temporary homelessness, and strategized possible solutions to homelessness. University of Toronto has emergency housing resources for students who have lost or are at risk of losing their current home. The one-on-one assistance is offered to students whose homes are untenable or do not have the personal or financial resources to find housing by themselves.

York University created an online research database to increase understanding of homelessness and provide a pool of evidence to those who can implement solutions and create lasting change.

At Ryerson, the Social Ventures Zone works with the Ryerson community to develop projects that create social change, some of which tackle factors related to homelessness, like affordable housing.

“A lot of people think that when we talk about innovation, we are focusing on the business side of it, or bringing products to market. No, this is also part of innovation and being responsible [in our] society,” said Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi.

According to Crowe, the university has a chance to take on this issue through academia. This might give students the information they need to create more lasting solutions, and allow Ryerson to take a more involved approach.

“Any program—whether it’s business, nursing, early childhood education—every single program intersects with the issue of homelessness,” said Crowe.

Crowe said she is open to being brought into any program and is willing to find out more about how to approach solutions to homelessness.

“I think the onus should absolutely be on Ryerson to take leadership on this issue, but not exclusively,” said Murphy. “We have the responsibility in our core mandate to educate on this issue, particularly because it is so relevant in our community [and] it is so incredibly impactful on so many people’s lives, not only in our community but to our very students.”

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