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Monsignor Doyle students camp out to shed light on homelessness

Students will be camped out in front of Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School next week to raise awareness and money for people experiencing homelessness
Jessica Vorsteveld (left), Leela Nguyen, Rebecca Balfour and Annie Denomme stand outside the tiny home in front of Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School.

The ongoing tour of tiny homes to each of the region's five Catholic secondary schools is designed to stir up conversations about homelessness and the housing crisis.

For students at Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School, those conversations will go from education to action next week.

The school is organizing a Better Tent City Sleep Out event, aiming to raise awareness and funds for The Cambridge Shelter Corporation in Cambridge and A Better Tent City in Kitchener.

On Nov. 30, the students will head out to the front of the school and pitch their tents for the night to gain a sense of what people experiencing homelessness in the region go through. 

The idea was brought forward by Father Toby Collins in partnership with A Better Tent City and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

Annie Denomme, a teacher at Monsignor Doyle who's helping spearhead the sleep out, said the school is also incorporating the initiative into its curriculum.

"I teach religion and we talk a lot about different groups that have been marginalized and are struggling in our community," Denomme said. 

"We talk about the dignity of the human person and making sure people are able to participate in the community. We're hoping this is an opportunity for them to see it lived in the real world."

More than just sleeping outside, the night includes a guest speaker, a silent vigil and several students will be writing messages of encouragement and hope in chalk on the sidewalk. 

At least $10 of the $20 activity fee from each student participating will be donated to The Bridges and A Better Tent City.

Interest in participating has been strong, Denomme said, with potentially 100 students taking part, including those from nearby schools.

And even those who aren't sleeping out are joining in to support the cause.

Various classrooms are running a "Pack a Backpack Challenge" in the lead up to the event and throughout the month of December that sees them fill a backpack with items like socks, mitts, toiletries, Christmas cards and chocolate, all of which will be donated.

"Students are looking for opportunities to get involved and understand what's going on in their communities," Denomme said.

"We're hoping it provides education, awareness, solidarity and an opportunity to learn about the housing issue in the region and how it's changed."

Rebecca Balfour and Leela Nguyen are members of the school's Social Justice Club, and both say they're committed to continuing the conversation and searching for solutions to the crisis.

"I think the face of homelessness is changing," Balfour said.

"You can't go downtown without seeing it right in your face and there's people our age who are affected by it, even people at our school. I want to do anything I can to help."

For Nyugen, it's all about being there for one another and changing the stereotypes that surround homelessness.

"I like helping people," Nyugen said.

"I hope to learn that I can appreciate everything I have and I won't take it for granted. Seeing people that don't have what I have, I feel grateful."

As they prepare to spend the night outside, the reality of the situation is starting to set in.

"I've been thinking I need five coats and have been preparing myself, but these people are going through this every day and they don't have access to the things we do," Balfour said.

"A lot of individuals don't have the opportunity with shelters like The Bridges being full. With Christmas coming up, although we may have things that we want or need, with people not having access to food let alone presents, it gives you perspective."

Following the event, teachers will talk to students about the experience and what they learned from it, but already Denomme is proud of the work the students have put into the event.

She hopes the learning continues well beyond when their tents are packed up and they head home.

"It's a chance for a night to stand along someone's experience, the idea of empathy and understanding another person's story," she said.

"We're hoping this isn't just a one year thing. We want to continue the education, continue the partnerships and find solutions."