Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

Imagine in ten years seeing someone you knew—perhaps someone you were close with—out on the streets. Without a home. Without anyone, or anything. How would you feel?

Why is it that it is only if we know someone personally, we feel their suffering, their pain? I see the homeless every time I go downtown. They fill the streets of my city, yet most days, I walk past them without sparing a glance. And while there are food banks, clothing drives and soup kitchens available, what the homeless truly want is for someone to have a conversation with them. Someone to ask them about their lives, and actually care about the answer. Someone to believe that their lives too, are meaningful.

This is what the organization Ve’ahavta provides.

Ve’ahavta is a Jewish humanitarian organization that tackles poverty. Its name translates to “and you shall love.” Ve’ahavta not only provides necessities to homeless people, but also works to break down the barriers which exist between us and the homeless. It aims to help restore human dignity and empower marginalized individuals to break the cycle of poverty. Like us, the homeless have different stories and backgrounds. Some of them suffer from mental or physical disabilities while others suffer from addictions or family problems.

Most people—myself included—do not realize this. Even though the homeless I’ve met are some of the most resilient people I know, they still need camaraderie and others to connect with. The only thing more devastating than the homeless’ living conditions is the fact that they have had to face them alone.

We often ignore the emotional difficulties of the homeless because we think our part is done once we donate some change. However, when I was volunteering with Ve’ahavta, I not only gave the homeless our handmade sandwiches and coffee, but also received the chance to speak with them. The experience really opened my eyes to the truth; in reality, we aren’t doing enough for the homeless. We have dehumanized them to the extent that we see them as a burden, or something to cross off our checklist: donating a couple of bucks is our “good deed of the day.”

We forget that the homeless are human beings just like us. It could be any of us out there. Although we think our education or family will sustain us, none of us are immune to fate. So why is it that we never interact with the homeless first hand, never try more than we absolutely have to?

I don’t know of an organization more dedicated towards helping others than Ve’ahavta. Shifts in the van last almost five hours, not including the time it takes to make the food by hand. The workers also bring coffee, clothing, sleeping bags, and even food for the homeless’ pets. As I went around downtown in the Ve’ahavta van, distributing these supplies, I became aware of things I had not noticed before. I realized that I take the warmth of my home for granted, while the homeless sleep on top of vents to maintain their body heat. While I turn on my thermostat whenever I feel a draft, the homeless cannot even get up for the fear of losing their warmth.  

It breaks my heart to think about how much suffering we overlook because we are desensitised to it. But not all of us are this way. Mukhtar Nalayeh, one of the outreach workers that drove around with us, has been volunteering with Ve’ahavta for only 3 months, yet he knows where most of the homeless people stay. He even keeps in contact with some through text or calling. He remembers what each of them wants, and guarantees to bring it the next time. He deals with everyone very kindly and courageously. I deeply admire him for his strength and patience while helping people who sometimes do not even want to help themselves. Most refuse to go to shelters, and even open shelters do not provide food after a certain time. Often, the situation seems hopeless, but people like Mukhtar keep the movement going.

The true eye-opener of the night was seeing children out on the streets. There were two kids who could have been any one of my friend’s siblings, yet a parental divorce and 8 other siblings in the family had left these children on the streets. But I could never tell that just by looking at them. This goes to show that poverty doesn’t have a type—it can affect anyone.

Perhaps the most interesting conversation of the night was with a man who studied chemical engineering at Ryerson. As someone who wants to go into engineering myself, I was shocked to see him out on the streets. Chris chooses not to work because he does not believe in science anymore. He has lost hope in humanity; he believes that we have used our knowledge only to destroy, and that humanity cannot escape from its animalistic tendencies. Until we get past our human nature of greed, and lust for power, we will never get anywhere.

Some of the most insightful conversations I have had are with homeless people. They see the world for what it truly is because they are not caught up in the latest trends that society obsesses over. “Do you even have control over anything, or are we all just property of the government?” Chris asked me as he first introduced himself. And as fatalistic as he may be, he is right to question life rather than just mindlessly following. Living from one day to the next, not knowing if you will survive the next day, does that to a person and makes them realize what really matters in life.

Of course, there are others see things differently. A devout Jewish man—one of the gentlest people I have ever met—told me to never lose hope in humanity, because once you lose hope, that’s when humanity is truly lost. I figured that if someone who has been through so much can have hope, then so can the rest of us.

Ve’ahavta fosters this hope within individuals. While they may not provide the homeless with homes or shelters, the compassion that they show saves just as many lives, if not more. Ve’ahavta works to promote this positive change within the lives of people who do have capacity and potential for great things, but are marginalized by their poverty. The outreach workers within this organization still have love and hope for humanity, and are able to bring about change day by day, one person at a time. Whereas some may believe that the homeless are not worth it, Ve’ahavta see people for what they can be—regardless of religion, race or circumstance. While we may never rid ourselves of our animalistic tendencies, we are also humans and we are made with an unbelievable capacity for caring. So yes, we shall love.