Tag Archives: Homelessness

How Not to Teach About Homelessness

I recently learned about The World’s Big Sleep Out, which tags itself as “A Global Sleep Out to Call for an End to Global Homelessness”. I’ve linked it here not because I support this but so that you can read about it yourself. The post that follows is my reaction when I learned that my school on the equator would be promoting the outdoor sleepover as a service opportunity for students. (That this event will take place directly upon the conclusion of our equatorial school’s winter fair could be a blog post all on its own.)


Let’s imagine: Here on the equator it’s about 27° Celsius at all times. When the sun goes down and there’s a light wind, which is common at night, it’s quite pleasant. Our students will be sleeping on the tennis courts on the roof of our school. Snacks, games, and breakfast have been advertised as part of the event and I know that there are plans for a film to be shown in the theatre before bedtime.

For a student bonding experience, it sounds lovely.

As an event that is supposed to raise awareness about homelessness, it is shockingly irresponsible.

For context: We live in a country where homelessness is actively hidden. When I’ve taken informal polls in class, and I have done this as recently as last week, no one has seen a homeless person where we live. Considering the typical income level of expatriate students at an international school, this is not surprising. They are literally in parts of the city where, in all honesty, there probably are not any homeless people. Or at least, not at times when these students would be out and about. Homelessness, to these students, is invisible.

Pretending to care about an invisible problem does not make it visible.

When I asked the organiser of the event how she planned to address homelessness, because I didn’t see how a tropical sleepover on the tennis courts would do it, she seemed to think that sleeping outside was enough. I can almost understand this response if you’re somewhere uncomfortable, like on a narrow park bench or outside in the rain or snow. But that would still break down when you consider that anyone playing at being homeless, as our students would be, probably has appropriate outdoor gear, a belly full of food, and the knowledge that they’ll be heading to back to their comfortable home in a mere few hours.

Another area to consider is that many people who are homeless do not sleep on the street. Many stay in shelters for days at a time or stay itinerantly with friends or relatives. An additional area our students will not see is that people who are homeless own only what they can carry; our students will not understand this when they bring a change of clothes to the roof and leave everything else sitting at home. Likewise, people who are homeless often do not have access to clean toilets or showers; our students will not have this concern.

Furthermore, malnutrition contributes to poor health, which certainly will not come across during this sleep over. All of our students, unlike people who are homeless, have an address. However, lack of address often restricts or eliminates access to government programs and services, as well as the ability to apply for a job since it is required on applications. This obviously contributes to a lack of stability, which leads to unstable education, and stigmatisation continues the cycle.

Our students will not understand this from a tropical night on the school’s roof.

Yes, it is important to raise awareness about homelessness. One of my students recently wrote an article about Willing Hearts, a local organisation that provides meals for those who need them. As I suggested to the organiser of the sleepover, why not ask students to volunteer for the 5am breakfast shift so they can interact with people who they would never otherwise even see? (This suggestion was met with an excuse about wanting to enjoy her weekend. I dropped the subject.)

Teach about homelessness? Assuming you’re doing so in a responsible and truly caring way, yes.

But not like this. Please not like this.