Tackling Homelessness at Adult HS: “These issues are important. I think we need to take action on something that is important.”

Alexandra Woods teaches at the OCDSB’s Adult High School. In this guest post, Xan shares the story of her Families in Canada (HHS4U) course moving from theory to action, a student driven project that culminated in timely and poignant advocacy. As one student so eloquently captured it, an “activism and anonymity” awareness campaign.

**You can read the original full length blog post here: Just Keep Pedaling — Capacity Building as Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

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It is the first day of our last unit in HHS4U and we have decided to go ahead with a project that takes action on a challenge or issue faced by individuals and families in Canada.  We could address some general themes related to challenges for individuals and families outlined in the HHS4U curriculum; but how do you talk in general terms about issues and challenges that students are actually facing?

“I recognize that some of these challenges are issues that some of you are currently facing. The focus of this last unit is up to you. I know that addressing something you are living through can be triggering and unhelpful. My focus and priority is really on developing skills to enable you to take action on issues that matter to you.”

One student responds: “These issues are important. I think we need to take action on something that is important.”

I wait for a moment and listen for the silence(s). And there are some. But it is difficult to “hear” them through the computer. There are no visual clues — no agitations, downward gazes, energetic dips that can be read as markers of discomfort.

I send out a survey and pay particular attention to the responses from students who said very little: They want to go ahead with a project related to COVID-19. Even those who are experiencing issues firsthand. So we do.

We brainstorm a list of possible topics: Job loss. Depression. Mental illness. Unpaid sick days. Lack of affordable housing. Substance abuse. White privilege & systemic discrimination. Abuse. COVID-19 evictions. The list is overwhelming and unending. We have exactly two and a half weeks to take action. Students decide they want to address COVID-19 evictions.

I search my Google Drive for a “taking action” template created by Ian Bingeman of Youth Ottawa.

Students begin working with the template — researching the issue and its root causes.

I’ve always struggled with teamwork, and this project helped immensely… Even in my activism, the teamwork is different than that experienced in the classroom.

Student Reflection
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Action Plan Template from DILA (Youth Ottawa) Adapted for our Project

At our next check-in, students discuss how one of the major causes of homelessness in Ottawa is a lack of affordable housing. Rental costs are climbing as developers buy up real estate in Ottawa’s core. While the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative will add a 109 affordable housing units to the city, 12,500 households are on the affordable housing waitlist (City of Ottawa Report on Shelter Use). They also learn that the number of people sleeping outside since the start of the pandemic has doubled. In June 2020, it was estimated that between 2–6% of Ottawa renters were unable to pay their rent and were at risk of eviction (Alliance to End Homelessness, 2021).

While the provincial government passed a temporary eviction ban, the ban is only slowing the process. Landlords can still issue eviction notices. Without a moratorium on eviction until COVID-19 is over, and without support to pay rent arrears, thousands will be evicted (Parkdale Organize).

In a phone call with Kaite Burkholder Harris, Executive Director of The Alliance to End Homelessness, our class learns this also has implications for public health: “Shelters are over capacity, people are not able to distance or maintain COVID-19 safety protocols without a home — it’s like we are standing on a COVID-19 eviction cliff, and no one seems to care” (Katie Burkholder-Harris, January 2021).

Students begin to make connections between the impacts of housing policy and other governmental policies. COVID-19 and COVID-19 evictions have disproportionately impacted racialized communities. They discuss how one thing that COVID-19 has made abundantly clear is that white supremacy pervades our systems, snaking its way through institutions and policies, sewing inequities into the fabric of our society.

We continue to refine our goals — unsure of which aspect to tackle, whether we have time to do so, what approach to take. We know that we can’t end homelessness or systemic discrimination, but we can bring attention to the issues.

Lack of PPE available is also impacting the spread of Covid among the street community. We get in touch with an organization called The World Wide Hearing Foundation — they send us 300 masks to distribute to the Salvation Army Outreach Program.

A couple of students want to find out more about how the issue affects the students in our class. They survey the students. 40 % of students in our class have had to choose between paying rent and eating.

We decide to use student stories as the focus for a social media campaign. Students work on a logo and twitter account @EEliminationOtt (Eviction Elimination).

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We reach out to Cam Jones from Experiential Learning, who connects us to Jesse Card, Deputy Executive Director of Youth Ottawa, to help us create a video that brings awareness to the issue.

We also start exploring the possibility of writing a song to go with the video. We connect with Craig Cardiff, Juno nominated singer-songwriter, and begin working on lyrics and melodies.

I realized how much of an impact we could make if our stories were used in mainstream media.

Student Reflection

Craig asks students to write verses that reflect their personal experiences of eviction. The chorus, “Eviction, eviction, always on my mind. Can’t work, can’t afford to get sick,” is co-written by a student named Hassan who contracted Covid and quarantined for three weeks. Unable to work, he borrowed money from a predatory lender and now in debt.

Hassan reflects on his experience: “This problem of eviction happens not only to those who are unemployed, but even to those like I and my roommates, and many Canadians who work full time and yet they face the same issue.”

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Over the course of the songwriting process, I learn more about other students in this class. About their struggles, their strengths, their individual circumstances.

One student records their part of the song from the Covid wing of the men’s shelter. Space (and silences) are opened up through the music. Voices become clear. Heard. And despite our physical distance, we become closer.

Jesse Card from Youth Ottawa works with a group of students to make a music video to go along with the song. He coaches students on how to create a shotlist and on how to record footage that brings the song to life.

I learned how to utilize my words about the trauma I faced to help people. It felt really good to have that politician come in and speak to us, but also listen to us. That was important to me.

Student Reflection

After two and a half weeks of listening, sharing, responding, and creating, we are ready to speak — we invite Joel Harden, our MPP for Ottawa Centre, to hear student stories and preview our music video before its release.

Habtamu, in charge of social media, introduces our project —

Habtamu, student in HHS4U, describes our project to Joel Harden (Jan., 2021)

Students share their stories of eviction —

Student discusses their experience with housing insecurity

We play our song and music video for Joel…

Joel asks us a question — excerpt from virtual class visit (Jan. 2021)

“I’m blown away by this project…So, what’s next?”

After Joel logs off we think about his question.

“If our stories were heard in mainstream media, they would could have an impact,” reflects one student.

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On January 29th, 2021, the one year anniversary of the City of Ottawa’s declaration of a housing emergency, we post our music video.

“Eviction Song” Song co-written by Craig Cardiff, music video co-produced by Jesse Card

I learned about advocacy…and networking…Using people in the community to assist with what your doing.

Student Reflection

“I can’t believe we did this,” one student says.

“It looks and sounds great,” says another.

After our day of action, our giddiness subsides and we return to Joel’s question.

What is next?

I think [sharing my story helped] my classmates to feel comfortable to be open about their experiences dealing with eviction and homelessness. I know I felt supported a whole lot.

Student Reflection

We aren’t sure. Maybe we continue lobbying for an eviction ban. Maybe we narrow our focus and work towards supporting students in our class, or our school, who are currently facing eviction. Maybe we do both. My hope is that whichever direction we choose, we take what we have learned and build on it — bridge our learning with new projects and carry the lessons forward so we can change the world for the better.

[This project] made me want to get more involved in activism.

Student Reflection
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