When Justin Zhuang first arrived at Western, he didn’t know a soul. He was struggling to learn a new language – even ordering at Tim Hortons was stressful. As an international student from Singapore, he was eager to make friends in his new home, so he joined a group taking trips downtown for bubble tea.
He noticed how many people slept in the doorway beside his favourite shop, even as the weather turned frigid.
“I saw this guy covering himself with newspaper and I just felt so bad. I bought him a coffee,” Zhuang recalled.
“Most encounters with homeless people are full of bias. A lot of the time, people are scared when homeless people try to approach. If you actually just sit down and have a conversation, many just want someone to talk to.”
Zhuang started chatting and bringing food to people he met on the street. He ended up creating meaningful connections all over London, Ont.
Four years after he came to Canada, Zhuang is graduating with a bachelor of management and organizational studies degree and rich relationships across campus and throughout the city.
An unexpected stay
He doubled down on his efforts to help Londoners experiencing homelessness after he was left stranded in Toronto with no place to sleep.
Zhuang planned to travel to China to see his aging grandparents, but COVID-19 restrictions cancelled his flight. With only a few dollars left in his bank account, he didn’t have enough to make it back to London. His parents sent a wire transfer from Singapore, but the cash didn’t appear in his account. He went to McDonald’s to charge his phone and spent the night on flyers he spread out in the stairwell of a public housing building.
He was cramped and scared.
When Zhuang finally made it back to London, after his parents’ transfer came through, he made himself a promise.
“I was so grateful to be back in my room and have something to eat. After that, I knew I had to find a job. I wanted to make money to support myself. It taught me a very important lesson.”
After sending out resumes to fast-food chains but hearing nothing back, Zhuang applied what he learned from his professors about the importance of networking. That led him to a job working as a bank teller at CIBC.
Feeding friends on the street
Over the Christmas holidays, Zhuang stayed at Western while the campus emptied out. He noticed how many people in the city had nowhere to go. He called up friends who were also staying in London through the winter break and asked if they wanted to go for a drive, stopping to buy some burgers along the way.
The newfound employment allowed Zhuang to use a portion of his paycheques to buy food for people living on the street.
“You just need a few dollars to buy some warm food. It’s not a lot of money, but it can mean a lot. Everyone can afford to take a few minutes out of their day.” – Justin Zhuang, BMOS graduate
Zhuang developed a friendship with a man who spent much of his time in a suburban area in the city’s north end. The two would chat outside the gym before Zhuang’s workouts.
“I asked how he was able to survive. He said he had a secret spot to hide his clothes and anything people gave him,” Zhuang said.
“Day by day, I talked to him and brought food and we built that connection. He started to trust me.”
Zhuang said their relationship was an eye-opener, forcing him to challenge some of his assumptions about homelessness.
“He constantly applied for jobs at the YMCA, and now he works there.”
Community amid COVID-19
Being away from family for four years straight amid the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t easy. When Zhuang’s friends went home for the summer, he felt isolated and struggled with his mental health.
“I was just so depressed. I would call my friends, but they have their families. I didn’t want my parents to worry about me alone in a strange country,” he said.
It made him even more empathetic to his friends experiencing homelessness who may also be struggling with loneliness, Zhuang said, noting, “At least I was in a warm room.”
As his friends returned to campus, so did Zhuang’s energy and enthusiasm. He threw himself into extracurricular activities, including the Seikido club to learn martial arts, the Chinese Student Association and writing for a magazine.
He prioritized connections and made so many, he’s considering staying in Canada after graduation. He hopes to become a financial advisor.
“After living in Canada for five years, I like the community here.”
There is a palpable sense of connection in some neighbourhoods, he said. Zhuang recalled one day when he was doing door-to-door fundraising in Komoka. After chatting with the resident, he was invited in for dinner.
“The more you give, the more you get back,” Zhuang said. “All these years in Canada, I received so much help, whether from my professors or older ladies walking down the street and waving at me.”