We should recognize and embrace the role that university buildings play as unofficial shelters

No matter the season, Hart House can be counted on to provide a tropical environment for repose. The library of the Massey sauna is particularly criminal in its use of stretched funds to overheat the few individuals who can stand to sweat in fall, winter, spring and summer. The one advantage of this absence of climate control is the myriad of faces a reliably hot building brings in. These next few months especially will see men and women much older than students tote in large wheelie bags and plastic sacs to nestle into the Hart House library’s firm leather couches and long covered window seats. On weekday afternoons, these part-time participants in university leisure can be found reading, napping or simply sitting staring out at the diverse community their presence has manifested.

Hart House is an obvious day-time lounge for those who spend their nights in shelters not open for business during the day. In cold winter months, where better to rest without fear of get-out-of-here-glances than a building where no key or card or purchase is necessary? The warmth and comfort given by Hart House to the homeless is a philanthropic function that ought to be more directly recognized. Hart House’s new mission statement is, after all, to create a “living laboratory … where all voices, rhythms and traditions converge.” A club or committee devoted to integrating the non-student, economically-disadvantaged members of the Hart House community into a productive and educational force would help achieve this vision.

If Hart House Warden Bruce Kidd needs tips on how to execute this endeavor, he need only phone Victoria College Dean of Students Kelly Castle. Her Humanities for Humanity program has for years recruited impoverished and disabled members of the Toronto community to study the great texts of Western thought alongside students from Trinity and Victoria College. The one drawback to programs like this — as I witnessed during my brief participation in dean Castle’s program — is that when students are made to feel like professors for poor people, the student is often shocked to find his or her condescension fully understood by those who have lived a life of hard knocks.

The other option for Hart House, and the one I imagine Kidd would be more likely to go for, is a hands-off approach. Do nothing. Watch the homeless go up and down the stone Hart House stairs, convalesce in overheated rooms, and return to the streets when the House has waved goodbye to its last rental group of the day.

It’s probably correct to think that a cross-discipline event space, art gallery, theater and gym has no business educating students about the life east of Bay and west of Spadina. Let us run laps while listening to poetry by Auden if we like. Hart House and U of T will make these the years where the rest of the world is found in a book or out of the mouth of a teaching assistant. Make sure to graduate.

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