As students from four of the region's high schools came together Thursday night to camp out in front of Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School to raise awareness for homelessness, they had an important message to get across.
Not everything is as it seems.
Approximately 140 staff and students from Cambridge's Monsignor Doyle and St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School and Kitchener's St. Mary's High School and Resurrection Catholic Secondary School pitched their tents in an attempt to gain a better understanding of what those experiencing homelessness deal with on a daily basis.
The day began with a guest speaker with lived experience and was followed by a silent vigil and group discussions.
Jessica Vorsteveld, a teacher at Monsignor Doyle who oversaw the event, believes hearing from someone first-hand reinforced how real the issues of addiction and homelessness are in the community.
"His big message was that it's more complex than we imagine it to be and there's always hope for folks," Vorsteveld said.
"There's inspiration we can take from it. I hope the students start to put some humanity to this issue of homelessness, a word they may not tangibly understand."
In the days to come an in-depth debrief will happen to discuss how the night went and what was learned.
For an event designed to make people uncomfortable and face difficult realities, Vorsteveld was thrilled with the turnout and was proud of the students who made the choice to put their words into action.
"We've talked a little bit about how both teenagers and unsheltered folks can experience stereotypes of who they are and who they want to be seen as," she said.
"We want to start talking about the stereotypes they might have had of homeless people and how this experience built empathy. We don't know the full stories of students walking through our halls sometimes. It gets you right at your core."
Tatiana English and Danielle Tejero were two of the students who participated in the camp out and are determined to be part of finding solutions.
"The message from the guest speaker was how drugs can lead to a lot of problems, including homelessness," English said.
"Raising awareness honestly helps a lot. I'm hoping more people become aware of how homelessness starts. It can start from anywhere."
For Tejero, it's not the first time she's been involved with learning about homelessness as she recently completed a project on the issue.
"I think it really should be spoken more about," Tejero said.
"Drugs destroy homes, lives, people and relationships."
With the region in the midst of developing a plan to end chronic homelessness, including a potential women's shelter in the city, the students chipped in to raise money for the Cambridge Shelter Corporation and A Better Tent City.
Of the $20 activity fee, at least $10 will be donated to the shelters. With food and beverages being donated by the Tim Hortons on Water Street South and FreshCo, it allowed the money to go to the cause.
It's a gesture that wasn't lost on Cambridge Shelter Corp executive director Wayne Paddick.
Engaging with youth has been a priority for Paddick and his team. Through work with various schools, the shelter has been able to educate and gain valuable volunteers.
"I welcome the opportunity to share the stories with our young folk and I think it makes them a more empathetic bunch," he said.
"I have spoken to several classes at various schools and at the end of every session I get the same question, 'how can we help?'"
Just as important as the funds raised for Paddick is the direction the conversation is heading.
"In a nutshell, I’m blown away by their ability to understand the issues and ask more questions," he said.
"It has strengthened my view that our future is in good hands."