Queen’s students hope to raise awareness on homelessness through ‘Their Stories’

Marten Gillwald (left) and Sven Buening are international students from Germany currently studying at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, and the duo behind Their Stories, a blog that aims to raise awareness about homelessness in the community. Submitted photo.

Editorial note: Last week, we ran an article entitled ‘She’s a statistic, until you meet her,’ an article speaking with a woman on the streets of downtown Kingston. After doing so, we were contacted by Sven Buening, a student from Germany currently studying at Queen’s University. He told us he was working on a project, and had a story of another homeless woman currently living in downtown Kingston. He was hoping to share that story, which you will find below. To find out more about Buening’s project, which he works on with his fellow student, Marten Gillwald, continue to the bottom of this article.

The story of Cynthia

Sven Buening (left) and Cynthia.

This is the story of Cynthia. As I meet her, she is sitting at the corner where Starbucks is on Princess Street. She is wearing a blue, thin jacket, and a red blanket covers her legs. I am looking at her sign, written on a piece of cardboard: “Homeless, everything helps.” As my gaze is wandering to her, a pair of brown eyes looks back at me.

“I have no cash with me,” I tell her, “but I would like to buy you something. What do you need?”

“Anything helps me, food, drinks – anything,” she replies.

I tell her I’ll be back in a minute and go to the next bakery to get some pretzel rolls, bread buns, and a cinnamon roll. When I come back to Cynthia, I hand her the bag and ask if she has time for a little chat and if I can sit next to her. She agrees and we start to speak. This is the story that she tells me during the next two hours.

Cynthia was born in Ottawa 24 years ago. She never met her real parents, but instead lived with her adoptive mother. Their relationship was coined by her mother’s behavior: She would beat and abuse Cynthia as a child. Years later, these experiences caused Cynthia to develop Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition. She tried to find help at school, but people either couldn’t or wouldn’t help her. When she was 18, she had another major fight with her mom. Following the fight, her mother kicked her out of the house, leaving her with no place to stay. She decided to go to her boyfriend at that time. But he didn’t support her either, cheating on her during the course of eight months.

Once again, she had no place to go, so she started to live in various shelter. However there are just not enough shelter spaces in Ottawa for everyone who is in need, so she could not stay at one place for a long period of time.

In hope of finding better conditions, at some point, she decided to come to Kingston. Here, she tried to find a place to live with her new boyfriend. But conditions turned out to be even worse. She says that the shelters in Kingston give priority to local homeless, resulting in an even more limited offering. So the two had no other option than sleeping outside while waiting for a spot at a shelter. And this is what they have been doing for the last three months, no matter if it is blazing hot or freezing cold. Some people would try to sleep inside of banks or other sheltered areas, but usually Cynthia and her friend have their own spot. She does not tell me where that is. Maybe a last piece of privacy.

Cynthia loves dogs. During our conversation, every time a dog came by, she would pet it. Suffering from PTSD, she would be eligible for a service dog. But being homeless makes it impossible for her to apply – An application requires her to have a doctor’s note and other formal documents she cannot get. However, many people on the street have pets anyways, especially dogs. She says you make more money having a dog, and the pet also bears company. She hates it if society says that homeless people should not be allowed to have animals since they apparently cannot even care for themselves. Cynthia says that she knows people who care for their dogs even more than for themselves and deserve a friend.

Except of having no long term place to call home, money is another major issue. She receives $650 from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but if she wants to cover living expenses, this is not sufficient. From these 650 bucks, a share of $400 is envisaged towards living costs – in a city that charges four digits rents for a flat for two people, this is a ridiculously small amount. It helps that there are a few people who buy her things – like food or drinks. At the moment, she is holding a Starbucks cup that someone bought her some minutes ago. She could never afford a coffee at such a price herself.

Usually, Cynthia tries to use public services like Martha’s table. She is very grateful for all the volunteers, all the people who spend their free time to make her life a little better. But there is not enough help. I can sense her frustration in her voice when she says that. Homelessness is such a major problem in Canada, but still, she says, politics only focus on the rich people, like when they are building high-end condos instead of affordable housing for the poor. And even when she finds a place on kijiji, the landlords don’t want to rent their places to a former homeless person or PTSD patients – they’d rather look for students. I think I cannot imagine how she feels when she says, “That’s just how society is!”

“Mh, I understand,” is what my answer was. But to myself I think that I can’t really relate to anything that Cynthia is talking about. I was lucky enough to grow up in a privileged household, having parents who were always there for me. During our conversation, I often feel unsure about what to say, about how to react to what she was saying.

I ask her about her mom. Does she ever had contact with her or other family members again? She answered by shaking her head. The homeless population is her family. And the street family helps more than your legit family. Everyone is facing the same, whether being 16 and kicked out of home, whether being one of the mom and dads struggling to give their kids a happy childhood, or whether being a senior, begging for money to pay for a place for the night.

Cynthia has no job at the moment. She would love to work, but she has to find a place to live first. She knows she cannot do any job for a long time if she cannot get enough sleep, or if there is no place for her to keep up hygiene. I asked her what she would like to do for a living.

She begins an answer, but then stops, as another women comes by. I assume she is homeless, too. She looks shattered. She turns to me and Cynthia and says with a trembling voice: “you cannot hit a women.” She comes a step closer to Cynthia and asks her “Does my nose look broken?” Apparently, her boyfriend had abused her and now she just came here to speak to a friend. I, involuntarily witnessing this situation, don’t know what to do. Cynthia offers her a hug, but the other women does not take it. She is clearly in a state of agitation, not standing still, but moving around nervously. I am still standing there, observing quietly. Probably Cynthia feels my discomfort and maybe she also wants to distract the women from her worries. So she introduces me to the other women by telling her that I want to share the stories of homelessness to raise awareness. The other woman stops rapidly and stares at me. She says: “Homelessness sucks”, and she starts crying. This time, she accepts Cynthia’s hug.

I feel like it is time to go. Quietly, I say goodbye to Cynthia, who is still hugging the other women.

If you see Cynthia, talk to her. Be open minded and curious, she is happy to share her story.

Disclaimer: This story is fully based on what Cynthia has told Sevn, or what Sven have seen with his own eyes. Cynthia’s permission was obtained to share this story.

Telling ‘Their Stories’

Their Stories is a school project by Sven Buening, 22, and Marten Gillwald, 21. The two are students from Germany who are currently on exchange at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston. As part of their program, they run a blog about a topic of their choice. When deciding about their blog theme, instead of covering obvious topics like travel or lifestyle, they decided to use this opportunity to try to have a positive impact.

That’s how Their Stories was born, a blog that raises awareness on an issue that can be found everywhere in the world: homelessness.

By telling the stories of homeless people, and sharing facts and experiences about volunteering work they did at Martha’s table of Kingston Foodbank, Sven and Marten want to initiate a thinking process about how society perceives homelessness.

“We think that too often, homeless people are ignored, prejudged or thrown into one pot and perceived as one big mass. But we forget that these are individuals, and we forget to be curious about what they have to say. Why do we ask the cashier in the grocery store how they are but not the person on the street?”

— Sven Buening
Sven Buening (left) and Marten Gillwald outside the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. Submitted photo.

Sven and Marten believe that as students, especially as students who can afford to spend time on the Earth’s other side, they enjoy some unique privileges. But on the same hand, they see these privileges being linked to the responsibility of using their benefits to make their community a better place.

In the City of Mannheim, where they study in Germany, the two live up this deep belief by engaging is different student clubs. Sven is part of an initiative that organizes an annual student conference on political, economic and societal issues, Marten is engaged at a club sustainability and entrepreneurship.

So far, they enjoy their time in Kingston very much. The close community at Queen’s and the Canadian openness towards other cultures makes them feel especially home away from home.

For more of Their Stories, visit the blog at www.their-stories.org.

4 thoughts on “Queen’s students hope to raise awareness on homelessness through ‘Their Stories’

  • Homelessness is NOT a choice. You read about it and see it on the news, on a daily basis. It’s NOT ‘FAKE NEWS’. Are we as a society so afraid to accept this reality? Are we being oblivious to the fact that the issue is so widespread? Perhaps we feel helpless; but, we are not. It starts with opening our minds and basing our opinions on facts. It includes considering the lack of affordable housing locally and otherwise. My hope is that we as a community can do this…..open our minds…..open our hearts.
    Lisa Larose

  • Interesting read. I’ve been a street nurse for a long time and have seen dozens of well-meaning efforts like this. To create an equitable playing field I urge the young men to give a cash honorarium to the people they are interviewing. That is standard practice unless you are journalists and I would argue you are not. You are engaged students. Also don’t disclose location of the individual as they will be ticketed, or worse removed. As well, please advocate at the City level for solutions and federally for housing, otherwise you are looking and trying to help downstream only.

    • They’re trying their best to shine light on a situation. I would argue they’re doing a good job at that.

  • As stated by Cathy Crowe, interesting read by engaged students. I am always happy to hear people talking about homelessness and I commend you for wanting to be involved in this conversation. But I ask you this: Is there another way for you to raise awareness about this topic without asking the person living rough to relive their personal trauma? Based on personal and professional experience, I am certain that every person you encounter for this blog will have a compelling story of trauma to tell you. My issue is that by not knowing how to respond you are potentially leaving the storyteller triggered and I would argue that this is retraumatizing when not done in a truly trauma-informed manner. There are methods that could make this engagement ethical. And think about how interesting this blog could be if you were raising awareness instead by, for instance, talking to political or organizational leaders and asking them what actions they are taking to rectify the homelessness and housing crisis. You now have the attention of two nurses who are very engaged and I happen to be a graduate student at Queen’s University currently researching this topic, so if you would like to talk more, please feel free to reach out. Disclaimer: I have not read your entire blog, so I am commenting based on this published article.

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