April 1, 2020

Students learn about the homeless experience during immersive four-day program

Mustard Seed and ucalgarycares mark 10th anniversary of Homelessness at Home co-curricular program
Students take part in ucalgarycares Homelessness at Home program.
Students take part in ucalgarycares Homelessness at Home program.

Most people are familiar with the expression, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” That’s exactly what nine University of Calgary students did over their winter term reading break with the ucalgarycares Homelessness at Home program.

This is the 10th year the Leadership and Student Engagement office has offered this unique program in partnership with the Mustard Seed, which has been serving people experiencing poverty and homelessness in Alberta since the 1980s. 

Homelessness at Home is one of five ucalgarycares programs that offers UCalgary students the chance to immerse themselves in a service-based, co-curricular learning experience that revolves around social justice, community development and sustainability. Students have highlighted their experiences as “life-changing” and “thought-provoking” and have come away with a new awareness of complex issues that directly affect our campus and greater global community.

On Feb. 18, 2020, students began their four-day journey by moving into the basement of the Church of Immanuel, five minutes from the downtown Mustard Seed location.

Serving a community meal

Students began the program by preparing and serving dinner for Mustard Seed residents living in the The 1010 Centre permanent housing facility. Sponsoring the event through program fees and a student-led bake sale, students offered a personal touch to the event and took every opportunity to eat and engage in meaningful interactions with residents.  

‘A day in the life’

On the second day, students took part in a simulation of the tasks experienced by the homeless day to day. They were tasked with a series of goals to complete during their eight-hour mission, such as bottle picking, collecting service information and wayfinding — all without use of a phone. This exhausting and eye-opening day ended with a powerful testimony from Les, a well respected and long-term Mustard Seed resident. Les shared his battle with addiction and homelessness and how he turned his life around after losing everything.

Harm reduction training

Day three started with a tour of the Calgary Alpha House Society, a charitable agency that provides safe and caring environments for individuals affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies. Students prepared bagged lunches and then participated in a naloxone training workshop at the Central Library with the Safeworks Harm Reduction Program. They ended the day serving coffee and hot chocolate to shelter guests waiting for transportation to the emergency Foothills shelter.   

Changed perspectives on homelessness

Students completed the program at the Mustard Seed Foothills Shelter, where they cleaned and sanitized 370 mats used as emergency shelter beds and they learned about services offered at the shelter. After a final reflection and debrief, students returned to their regular busy lives with a greater understanding of the complex social issues surrounding homelessness such as mental illness and addiction. 

The students’ biggest takeaway was that they shouldn’t pass judgment on those experiencing homelessness, since they don’t know their story or understand hardships that they experience on a daily basis. One student summed up their learning, “People don’t choose to be homeless; most become homeless because of various circumstances that they can’t control.” Other students said they had a better understanding of how small kindnesses can make a big difference in the lives of others.

Learn more about the Homelessness at Home program and other ucalgarycares programs offered through the Leadership and Student Engagement office.

Financial support for students participating in the Homelessness at Home program was available through bursaries made possible by Students’ Union Quality Money funding.    

The Mustard Seed is always seeking volunteers in Calgary to join their team. Learn how you can get involved.