Students petition to save Ryerson’s homelessness class

The fate of Ryerson University's popular Homelessness In Canadian Society class remains in question for the fall

Students and instructors are concerned about the fate of a popular Ryerson University course about homelessness that’s been taught for more than a decade at the university.

The continuing education class, Homelessness In Canadian Society, was quietly cancelled at the end of April and de-listed for the fall session.

The remaining winter session classes were moved to live Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes involved guest speakers ranging from those who have lived experience with homelessness and professionals who work in harm reduction.

Instructors Pascal Murphy and Isaac Coplan tell NOW that the reason they were given for the cancellation was that the class was not authorized for online learning. Ryerson is preparing to offer a mix of online and in-person learning this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Murphy and Coplan say they have yet to receive a response from Ryerson higher ups on the reasons for the cancellation.

A petition asking Ryerson’s Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academics to reinstate the class has so far collected more than 2,700 signatures.

The course has since been re-listed on the school’s fall course offerings since the petition went live, but with few details.

Murphy and Coplan are unsure who will be teaching the course and how it will be offered. They have been left to speculate why this popular and highly rated class whose enrollment has been at capacity for the last decade was on the chopping block. Murphy, in fact, is the top-rated instructor on from Ryerson University.

“The popularity is certainly not in question,” says Coplan, who is Murphy’s former student and is currently an instructor while pursuing his Ph.D. doing work on homelessness. “We’ve been told that it’s one of if not the most popular electives at the university.”

Several comments under both the petition and Murphy’s RateMyProfessor page express how valuable the course has been in changing perceptions about homelessness, building understanding and in some cases changing peoples’ lives.

“We’re really focused on engaged learning,” says Coplan. “We’re really grounded in the communities around us. Some of these guest speakers have been coming in for 10 years now, when they were still in the midst of homelessness and some of them are now in supported housing or other types of units.”

At NOW press time, a Ryerson spokesperson could not offer clarity on the status of the course. We’ll update the story if they do. Instead, they suggested we reach out to their Distinguished Visiting Practitioner, street nurse Cathy Crowe.

Crowe used to teach the course. She too expressed concerns for its cancellation and wrote to Gary Hepburn, the dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, stating those concerns.

“I have never heard students rave so much about a course,” Crowe writes.  “It has led many students to pursue issues related to homelessness and housing.”

Crowe also expressed concerns to the dean about the way the course might be taught, warning against a one-size-fits-all pre-programmed or taped sessions that would reduce engagement.

“Homelessness is not static and the topical issues that may be relative today [encampment evictions, COVID-19, the modular housing development] may be totally different from September. The course is a living, breathing entity that interacts with our city in a way that is so generic to Ryerson’s mission.”

Murphy and Coplan share those concerns about the September course they have no details about. And it seems especially troubling to them that this course would be treated as expendable just as the COVID-19 pandemic is adding new dimensions to conversations around homelessness.

Murphy noticed how the pandemic pushed the conversations for students in new directions.

“The pandemic was impacting people quite significantly and they were worried about vulnerable populations, people experiencing homelessness included,” he said. “Homelessness is a crisis. And now we have another crisis. It’s crises upon crises.”

Adds Coplan: “We know COVID-19 has caused a spike in overdose deaths in Toronto. Those are the conversations that we were really hoping to engage with.”


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