Meet Project Empathic
By Flapper Press:
Project Empathic is a Canadian-based organization taking on the issue of homelessness in unique and impactful ways. Led by a focused group of high school and university students, they aim to reduce the stigma around homelessness through a series of workshops conducted at elementary schools and through the innovative idea of having those students write cards to unhoused individuals, sharing positive messages of hope and support.
As this impressive and motivated team grows, we met with the leaders behind the project (co-founders Janelle Tam and Kaitlyn Liu, Director of Operations Jake Valinho, and Public Relations Officer Ethan Yang) to learn a little more about them, their journey, and their challenges.
FP: Welcome, Project Empathic! We were so happy to learn about the extraordinary work you’re doing. For those new to your project, tell us a little about your organization and its mission.
Janelle: Growing up in Vancouver, we had always known how pressing the issue of homelessness was. However, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, housing instability issues were amplified even further. There was an increasing number of news articles about rising housing costs, tent cities, and inequities on the streets that made homelessness an even more glaring issue. Despite this, global leaders didn’t seem to be taking enough action, and people continued to turn a blind eye to what was happening outside.
We thus created Project Empathic out of this desire to combat apathy. We are an organization that works to spark in our generation kindness, empathy, and a willingness to assist individuals who have fallen through the cracks of society. We aim to build bridges of compassion to propel greater social change.
Jake: For me, having grown up around the Downtown Eastside, I see people often being pushed away despite the problem being solvable (we can see this in other places, too). Unhoused people are hidden from society through anti-homeless architecture, and resources are spent hiding them instead of fixing the problem. Yet, this issue persists so intensely in Vancouver because steps are not taken by people in positions of power to address these concerns. Also, as kids, it’s difficult for us to address the systemic problems that engender homelessness, [but] we can try to deliver empathy for people who society is not built for.
Janelle: We believe that change can only begin when we start caring. Through Project Empathic, we hope to build a community filled with young people who care.
FP: What is the most important thing for people to understand about homelessness?
Jake: It’s not an individual issue—it’s a systemic issue. Often, homelessness stems from one event: the loss of a job, a small family issue, or a small legal issue. Simply put, people often don’t have the support or resources to handle this issue [through] no fault of their own, so it results in the loss of a home or a family, which results in homelessness.
When people think of the problems of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside, they think of drugs or poverty, but it’s not a matter of choice. People need to realize that homelessness stems from one thing leading to another. This is perpetuated by a lack of infrastructure to end this poverty trap. What we need as a society is a system that gives people the resources to break free from the cycle of poverty.
Janelle: It’s also important to note that mass homelessness has not always existed. It was created through a series of historical and governmental actions in the 1980s when Canada and America entered a severe economic recession. Many were left unemployed, and many of these people are still experiencing the repercussions of this today.
If homelessness was created, it means that it can be solved. People are already working to end homelessness in other countries (take Finland, for example) that champion Housing-First policies that put people before their situation. We need to do the same across the world.
From our consultants, we’ve learned that people experiencing homelessness are really simply people without homes who go through a series of life circumstances. It’s so important that we take action to solve this issue at its roots.
FP: Your focus seems to be on tackling the issue on two main fronts: workshops and cards. How did you come up with this two-fold strategy? What is it about these two approaches that you find to be the most effective for your goals?
Ethan: Our main goal as an organization is to instill empathy. This is mainly done through our workshops. By understanding homelessness as an issue, we hope students can translate that knowledge into empathy.
Through knowledge, we also want to empower students to inspire change—card-making is a way for students to express empathy. During our many consultations with shelters, social workers, and unhoused people in BC, all of them expressed that in addition to a lack of resources, people experiencing homelessness also face severe isolation that amplifies their existing challenges.
Through card-making, we hope to empower students to directly lessen that isolation while fostering a sense of community throughout society. Essentially, this two-front strategy allows us to not only educate students about homelessness but inspire action and ensure unhoused people can experience the empathy that we aim to develop.
Jake: A lot of kids also ask after the workshops: What can we do? Our card-making allows elementary school students to personally take action to understand this issue. Even if it’s a small act, collective action makes a difference on a large scale. A lot of people distribute immediate resources, such as food, water, and hygiene products. However, we distribute something that is different and more human. And that’s really special. This lets people experiencing homelessness have that human connection, which is just as important as any other need.
FP: Please walk us through what a typical workshop might be like.
Kaitlyn: We currently run two workshops that discuss the importance of caring about homelessness, one for older students from grades 4–7 and another for younger children from grades 1–3. In our workshops, we start off by defining homelessness with proper terminology, so we can unlearn some of the inherent stigmas that can be carried in our words.
Janelle: We then move into addressing the common stereotypes surrounding homelessness. For the older students, we address and unpack a lot of historical contexts. In comparison, for the younger students, we read them a short story that humanizes the experience of being unhoused.
Kaitlyn: We follow up with activities to develop empathy to put the students in situations where they can learn to empathize with unhoused individuals. My favourite discussion is our “Brainstorm Solutions to Homelessness” conversation that really lets us reframe our perception of homelessness from a massive, inevitable issue, to one that is complex but solvable!
And we end off with a card-making activity and handouts, so that students can continue discussing homelessness outside the classroom—essentially, to allow students to bring home what they learned to their families to facilitate valuable discussions.
Janelle: Our workshops are led by experienced, highly trained workshop facilitators—these volunteers are high school and university students like us, passionate about public speaking, leadership, and advocacy work.
Kaitlyn: The workshops are carefully developed by our senior volunteers who identify and highlight systemic issues surrounding homelessness that align with curricular areas of focus in consultation with academic research and stakeholders in the homelessness crisis. We’re working on a workshop series right now to continue our program!
Janelle: Following our workshops, teachers have reported that their students have become increasingly emotionally connected to homelessness and empathy. In contrast, the students have brainstormed hundreds of potential solutions to homelessness. We’ve reached almost a thousand students in 20 partnering schools across British Columbia. And it’s all so empowering to see how our program is received, to see everyone come together to take action and effect change.
FP: You direct your message to young children, particularly elementary students. Being an organization of younger people yourself, do you feel a particular connection with these students? Do you find they respond better to working with a group somewhat closer in age to themselves?