After a gruelling day of winter classes, the only thing on many students’ minds is climbing into a warm and comfortable bed. For many of us, this is a matter of a short walk or subway ride.

It is often on these walks and transit routes that we see the people who won’t make it to a warm bed that night. The train, the bus, or the street becomes their home for the night.

On any given night, approximately 35,000 Canadians are homeless. In Toronto alone, there are approximately 5,000 homeless people, up to 2,000 of whom are children.

Mark Horvath, founder of the video blog “Invisible People,” explains our tendency to effectively shut out homelessness from our reality. “It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence,” he says.

This may be the easiest thing to do, but it is far from what we have the ability to achieve. We can change the way we look at homelessness and turn our willingness to learn into an opportunity for social action.

There are students on our campus who feel this way, and who dedicate their time to relief work for those living on the streets of downtown Toronto.

The Newman Catholic Students Club comprises some of the students. The club organizes Street Patrol, a monthly gathering of students and community members who make packages consisting of sandwiches, clothes and supplies, discuss homelessness, pray together, and then deliver the packages and engage in discussion with people on the streets.

Michelle Donnelly, Social Justice & Community Services Coordinator at the Newman Centre, explains that “the truly lasting impact is in providing hope during our discussions. Many of the encounters we have had have led to meaningful conversation, both for those we serve, and ourselves… the most memorable part of any Street Patrol is the stories some people choose to share with us. Every person we encounter has a different one, and many of them started similarly to our own… Street Patrol gives students and community members an opportunity to learn more about homelessness, discuss, change attitudes and drive change in a group setting.”

I, too, was profoundly affected by my experience on Street Patrol; it was the night I knew would have a lasting effect on the rest of my life. The initial fear of approaching someone on the street vanished the second I looked into his eyes and saw him for who he was — a human being, just like any one of us.

The most meaningful moment was when, after handing out a winter hat, a man put it on, turned to me and said: “I don’t mean to be thickheaded here, but how do I look?” Even through the most difficult of situations, he was able to find a reason to laugh. It struck me that we can all learn from attitudes like this.

As students, we have the ability to raise our voice and speak for those who cannot be heard. We can be a part of the movement right outside our university’s doors, to create connections with those living on the streets and work towards the ultimate goal of ending homelessness.

Sure, it’s easier to keep on walking. But dare yourself to look at those living on the street in the eye and make a connection. Because when we do, more than one life can be changed forever. 

Anyone can join Street Patrol’s monthly gatherings, which generally occur on Friday evenings. More information can be found on the U of T Newman Catholic Students Club’s Facebook page. Donations of peanut butter, mustard, brown paper bags, Ziplocs, outerwear, and most especially socks, are always welcomed.

Adina Samuels is Vice President, Charity, at Hillel U of T.