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Rights + Justice

A Cross-Canada Cycle Against the Stigma of Social Housing

Having faced stigma himself as a kid, Curtis Carmichael took his life experience on the road.

Seher Asaf 22 Aug

Seher Asaf is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @seher_a1.

Curtis Carmichael remembers the bed bugs, damaged doors and rotting wood that marked the 20- to 30-year-old public housing estate where he grew up.

But neglected maintenance requests are hardly one of the main challenges 24-year-old Carmichael continues to face as a long-term resident of social housing in Toronto.

Carmichael, the son of Guyanese immigrants, said the inferior treatment from educators, police officers and employers was the biggest obstacle he had to overcome.

In high school, for example, Carmichael felt that teachers often had lower expectations from him and his friends.

“You started to realize that without them knowing, they started to treat us differently,” reflected Carmichael in a phone interview. “Guidance counsellors would be pushing us to go into applied courses when we knew we could have been in academic courses because we had parents vouching for us.”

The stereotyping of social housing tenants as lazy, abusers of social services, or mired in drugs and violence inspired the Queen’s University graduate to give up a career in football and turn to education and activism to fight the overwhelming stigma associated with living in public housing.

“It’s hard to go forward in a world where you’re treated differently,” said Carmichael.

In an effort to share his personal story, Carmichael embarked on a 3,000-kilometre biking expedition that had him peddling from Vancouver to Halifax, a journey he recently concluded.

He visited 30 different communities where he often held talks organized through word-of-mouth. On average, 40 to 50 people would show up.

“I decided to do something big enough to raise awareness for a lot of challenges and injustices I’ve noticed that a lot of kids are dealing with today,” said Carmichael.

851px version of Curtis Carmichael bike trip
Addisiane Freeland, Bligh Williams, Curtis Carmichael, Jarret Murray and Trey O’Conner at the end of Carmichael’s journey. Photo submitted.

The initiative is part of a campaign called “Ride for Promise” spearheaded by Carmichael in collaboration with Toronto-based non-profit Urban Promise. The organization supports youth leaders like Carmichael living in government housing.

Carmichael hopes to raise $150,000 for the charity. The proceeds will go to programs that address the needs of children growing up in social housing. So far, he has raised approximately $25,000.

With a small group of friends, Carmichael was biking for up to six to seven hours a day to reach rural towns as well as big cities. Every day, he was confronted with people who had little understanding of what it was like to grow up in social housing and how racism manifests in school systems. The occasionally jaded crowds he spoke to would leave him spending hours on his bike thinking about how to reach people who had experience with neither. It was mentally exhausting.

“If I was just biking it would be easy,” said Carmichael. “A lot of the frustration and mental fatigue was for me on the bike trying to figure out how to reach people so that they could understand.”

“On the bike, every day, I would think about how to re-format my speeches. Every day, I thought about past conversations, and how I can better reach people.”

While many communities were willing to listen and engage with Carmichael’s story, for others it was a difficult message to swallow.

“Some people just have these walls set up. The second you talk about race, they get all emotional and sensitive without really listening to what you’re saying.”

Carmichael is now hoping to help children who experienced similar challenges through education. He is currently obtaining a teaching diploma.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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