Solidarity, not charity – neighbours reach out to the unhoused among us

We used to talk about the ‘developing world’ and the ‘developed world’. Now people talk about the North and the Global South, and of north-south and south-south programs. But I have always preferred to speak of our world in terms of ‘horizontal development’ – neighbour to neighbour – rather than ‘vertical development’ – expert to novice.

And I have noticed how much our worlds are coming together recently, more than ever before. We have ‘homeless’, the global south has ‘refugees’ or ‘climate change migrants’. But they are the same – they are people who don’t have a home, for a whole variety of reasons. And many people are starting to make that link.

By Wilfredor – File:Homeless on Paulista Avenue, São Paulo city, Brazil.tif Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In Victoria, BC, a group of older women have formed a support group for the unhoused, inspired by several women who had been helping people camped out in tents in a local park. They modelled it on a similar pilot project for unsheltered residents in Ontario, and refugee sponsorship programs, and they hope it will become a model for people all across Canada.

It’s neighbour to neighbour work. As a former park resident who now works with a community services charity puts it – it’s ‘solidarity, not charity’.

“They’ve been helping folks with navigating systems and providing emotional support… very much trying to elevate the voices of the unhoused and actually support them in ways that feel good,” said Shae Perkins. “It’s not a top-down approach, it’s very much equal footing, and it creates a deeper, more real connection—resilient reciprocal relationships. It’s not just a one-way street.”

And that is true of our refugee sponsorship programs, as well, which is why that phrase jumped out at me. 

This is an area in which Canada has led the way internationally. We were the first country to allow private citizens to form groups to sponsor refugees, and other countries have since followed suit. It wasn’t actually an intentional policy, according to a recent fascinating story in The Walrus; it grew out of our odd national politics, but because it tapped into peoples’ great desire to do something to help others, it became national policy.

Back when we all saw that powerful picture of a tiny boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying drowned on a beach, so many of us in Canada – and elsewhere – felt a compelling need to act. There was political debate going on at the time, and we saw some of the same tropes that appear everywhere when politicians talk about immigration.

But what fascinated me was the contrast between that debate and what ordinary people were doing. I started collecting those stories – people knitting toques for people who had never experienced our cold weather, people finding homes and furniture for new arrivals, people coming together with neighbours to fundraise for a sponsorship group. It made my heart sing, really, to see our spontaneous reaction – welcome, help, support – a powerful, grassroots-driven, neighbour to neighbour response. This was refugee policy for Society 3.0, as I wrote then.

Some of the most enthusiastic were people who had once been welcomed to Canadian shores as refugees themselves, such as the ‘boat people’ who came from Vietnam. Canadian public opinion then had forced the government to accept many more than they had planned, and they had been highly successful – now they wanted to give back.

Similar things happened elsewhere. The Techfugees program developed when a tech person saw that same picture of Aylan Kurdi and made a blog post to say ‘we must do something’. He was overwhelmed by the response, and it led to the creation of an organization still active today that works to aid refugees through tech strategies.

Many years ago, I remember hearing Gwynne Dyer talk about the future. What I remember most is his statement that Canada, in our makeup, is more like the United Nations than any other country in the world. We are the world, in miniature, in other words – and for me, it is profoundly comforting to know that our first impulse is to see how we can help, and to know – like the lady in Victoria – that we can’t live comfortably in our nice homes if others are out in the cold.


Local group provides homes for unhoused with innovative refugee-inspired sponsorship pilot program. Capital Daily, Feb. 26, 2021

The story behind the world’s first private refugee sponsorship program. The Conversation, Dec. 8, 2019

How Immigration Really Works. The Walrus, May 2021

Syrian refugees and Canada: The lessons of the boat people. CBC, June 27, 2014.

 Empowering displaced people with technology. Techfugees.