All it took was one encounter with a homeless individual on the streets of downtown Toronto for Rebecca Kaushal, a recent UTM graduate, to start a project targeted towards aiding the homeless population and raising awareness about their struggle with mental health. With United Way of Peel as her official sponsor, Kaushal founded her initiative, Help the Homeless, and now aims to educate the community on poverty and mental health through workshops held at UTM.

Most of Kaushal’s volunteer experience has been in the public health and mental health sectors through work with non-profit organizations and hospitals. She is also currently doing research on mental health with the University of Toronto, but she wanted to create her own initiative that focused on the mental health of a population that is typically overlooked—the homeless.

Early last November, after missing her shuttle home from a research meeting in downtown Toronto, Kaushal decided to grab herself lunch. As she was walking around the city streets, she passed a homeless individual. Instead of dismissing the man, she approached him, and they began discussing the struggles and the realities of living on the streets of downtown Toronto.

Kaushal bought the man a bowl of warm soup and a bagel, and sat beside him on his sleeping bag. Although the individual hadn’t eaten for two days, when he noticed an elderly homeless woman with a three-year old child across the street, he requested Kaushal bring the meal to them.

Later on in the day, Kaushal discovered the man suffered from acute schizophrenia and witnessed one of his schizophrenic episodes. She realized that these episodes hindered his ability to talk to people and to obtain the food and resources he needed each day. As people walked by, Kaushal revealed that they called the man “crazy” and “apathetic,” and they said that his schizophrenic episodes were only an “act” to get free food. Some pedestrians even stopped to ensure that Kaushal was safe.

That night, Kaushal went back to her dorm in Erindale Hall and decided that she needed to do something to help this population in any way that she could.

She started a funding initiative online where she raised $2,000 in two weeks. This money allowed her to construct care packages full of clothing and food cards. The Center for Addiction and Mental Health helped her create pamphlets on crisis intervention and soup kitchen locations to add to the packages. Volunteers from Kitchener, Hamilton, and across the GTA joined Kaushal on the streets of Toronto to distribute the packages to homeless shelters and individuals on the streets.

“That was something that stuck with me for a very long time. The fact that it took one idea and one person to have so many people wanting to help,” she explains. “If that’s what it takes, one person to make this happen, then I’m going to push forward with this initiative and see where it can go.”

Through this experience with her volunteers, Kaushal noticed that they knew housing and food was an issue for the homeless population, but they weren’t aware of the issue with mental health. The funding from the United Way of Peel allows Kaushal to organize an educational component into her project through the workshops.

Kaushal created two stages for this project: stage one is to “educate and mobilize” and stage two is “leadership and implementation.” Stage one includes four workshops that aim to educate her volunteers on “poverty, fighting hunger, and mental health within the homeless population.” Kaushal will lead all four workshops with occasional guest speakers. The four workshops take place on March 8, March 22, March 29, and April 5, from 6-7 p.m. in the Student Centre board room.

The first workshop is an introduction to the project and to the concept of mental health and the stigma within the homeless population. The Canadian Mental Health Association will attend the second workshop to discuss “Mental Health 101” with the volunteers. The association will dive into various aspects of mental health and how it can affect different parts of people’s lives.

Kaushal hopes to educate the public on “poverty, fighting hunger, and mental health.”

In the third workshop, Kaushal will address more issues on poverty and mental health, and a guest speaker, a Ph.D. candidate from YorkU, will speak about their investigation into youth homelessness. The fourth and final workshop is a mandatory training session that sets volunteers up for stage two.

Stage two is the fundraising aspect of the project. From April 6 to June 15, volunteers will organize their own fundraising events within the community, like car washes or door-to-door fundraising, and Kaushal’s team will provide them with the resources to make their ideas happen.

From June 16 to July 8, the team will purchase products for the care packages, and from July 8 to July 20, the team will head out with the volunteers to assemble and distribute the packages to the homeless population in the streets of Toronto.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research with talking to homeless individuals on the streets and in homeless shelters, and to homeless shelters themselves to figure out what their needs are and what we can provide them with,” Kaushal explains. “We found out that vitamins, hygienic products, shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste, toothbrushes, tampons for the women, the basic daily needs that we need as people, they have those exact same needs.”

Kaushal explains that the purpose of the project is to educate the community on the topics of mental health and poverty within the homeless population through leadership from the youth.

“It’s making people more aware that this problem is extremely prevalent. It’s just having a space to talk, creating a space for conversation and giving that alternative perspective that I got from that one interaction and pushing that forward to other people and making them realize that no, they don’t do this to themselves—many times it’s not a choice,” Kaushal says. “No one wants to be on the streets.”