York University students are alleviating homelessness with the spoils of unused gift cards.
Peter is an 89-year-old Second World War veteran. After the war, he moved to Toronto, where he worked as a carpenter for 44 years. His favourite parts of the city, he says, are the homes he had a hand in building—the homes he can’t afford to own or rent.
Peter is one of the many homeless Torontonians who inspired Deanna Lentini to start Fix the 6ix last summer, a volunteer-run organization that helps alleviate some of the pangs of living in poverty or being homeless in the city.
The program works by collecting unused or partially used gift cards, and distributing items purchased with those cards to people living on the street.
The idea emerged when Lentini’s own habit of giving spare change to homeless people evolved into giving out gift cards. “I thought, if I give out [unwanted] gift cards, I can give more and it costs me less—it costs me zero dollars to give a five dollar gift card,” says Lentini. “It was this really common sense realization.”
Lentini, a York University health science student, started asking for gift cards from her friends and family, and was overwhelmed by the positive response. She then applied for, and received, seed funding from the university’s faculty of health to start a full-fledged grassroots organization.
She now has 12 volunteers working with her across campus to collect as many gift cards as possible over the next few weeks. On Mar. 31, the Fix the 6ix crew will tally up the cards and collect their spoils from Tim Horton’s, Loblaws, Walmart, and other stores in the GTA. The goods will be distributed to homeless people via Sistering, a women’s drop-in shelter, while food donations will go toward making hot meals for people living on the street. So far, Lentini has collected about 60 gift cards, which she says is a good start.
Lentini says Fix the 6ix has nothing to do with her academic or professional pursuits. “You can’t even branch it,” she says. “It came from more of an emotional, deep concern that I had. Living in Toronto, you take homelessness as a given. You see it downtown and you think it’s part of the urban landscape.” In order to alleviate homelessness, that attitude, says Lentini, needs to change first.
“We don’t want to just give out things and let it be,” she says. “We want to try to give a face to Toronto homelessness.” That’s why last summer Lentini made an effort to meet people like Peter, and listen to their stories. “This is an unexpected way that their lives turn out, and you need to understand where they come from and maybe why they’re in this situation,” she says. “I don’t think at any point when [Peter] was 21 he pictured that in 70 years he’d be sitting on a park bench calling the Salvation Army his home.”
Lentini is graduating this spring, about the same time the funded portion of Fix the 6ix wraps up. She plans to continue her studies in health sciences, but will keep building on Fix the 6ix as a volunteer-managed, grassroots organization. Currently, the organization has an online store in the works to sell Fix the 6ix swag, and Lentini is working on partnering with Toronto school boards to run regular gift card drives.
“No matter what,” she says, “I’m going to carry this project forward wherever I go.” Undoubtedly, so will homeless Torontonians, like Peter.
For more information on Fix the 6ix, visit the organization’s website.