A Wilfrid Laurier University student is making waves with a new project aimed at making Waterloo Region residents more familiar with people experiencing homelessness in the region.

Homeless in Waterloo, a Facebook page founded by Laurier business student Justin Chan, has garnered a following of thousands of people in just a few short weeks.

Chan says he got the idea for the page last winter, while working in downtown Toronto on a co-op term.

He noticed that every time he walked to work, he passed the same people who appeared to be homeless.

Frustrated by a feeling that he had been “trained by society” to ignore them, Chan decided one day to strike up a conversation with Jeremy, a panhandler outside Union Station.

“He said that the hardest part of being homeless is the fact that he is regularly ignored by society,” he says.

“That is when it really clicked for me.”

When Chan returned to Waterloo Region, he decided to try and talk to local people experiencing homeless the same way he had talked to Jeremy.

The end result is Homeless in Waterloo, a page on which he and others post the stories of the region’s homeless population in their own words.

“We go around Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge … and we simply have conversations with people,” he says.

On each trip, Chan and his cohorts carry a backpack containing snacks and water bottles.

They say they don’t pressure anyone into talking to them, but they usually find people to be receptive and willing to participate in their project.

One of the first stories they shared was that of Chris, who blamed drug addiction for leaving him homeless in Kitchener.

He’s since managed to work his way out of homelessness – picking up a job in the construction industry and a strong connection to his faith along the way – and he says projects like Homeless in Waterloo could help others reach the same point.

“I think it’s great that someone’s going out and just meeting with people that need to be offered hope,” Chris says.

This week, Homeless in Waterloo profiled a 49-year-old Kitchener man named Duff.

Duff says that he grew up with abusive parents, who died when he was 12 years old. After that, he was in foster care.

He says he doesn’t have any known relatives, but has met “a lot of good people” and wishes people would be friendlier when they see him on the street.

In just a few days, his story was seen by thousands of people. It generated an outpouring of support that Chan says left him feeling much better about his community.

“He was really happy with all the love that he received,” Chan said.

“On a day-to-day basis, he doesn’t feel this love. To know that it’s there … I think it’s big for him.”

According to House of Friendship executive director John Neufeld, there are about 250 people using Waterloo Region’s emergency shelters every night, while other homeless people choose to stay away from the shelters.

Neufeld says the only way to make a significant dent in the homelessness numbers is with broad community support – and projects like Chan’s are a step in the right direction.

“If it helps reduce some of the stigma … I think that’s fantastic,” he says.

With reporting by Victoria Levy