After a rocky Homeless Awareness Week in which several events fell through, the Community Involvement Center hosted the Cardboard Campout on Friday night. Weber State University students spent the night in the Bell Tower Plaza with no shelter but cardboard boxes to partially simulate the experience of homelessness.
Participants said Friday evening that, luckily, it had been a relatively warm night and they were not too worried about the cold. Jeff Robbins, a community outreach liaison with AmeriCorps Vista and the CIC, who was in charge of the event, said in previous years, the campout, originally hosted by STAND, fell on colder nights.
“People are homeless all year round, not just in summer,” Robbins said. “It’s a chronic issue that happens throughout the year, and it just, it sucks to be homeless in winter — especially in Utah. It is very trying, there’s a lot of fatalities . . . Typically, this has been held in the years past on frigid weekends. You know, you go out in these boxes that are not really good shelter, and you get to experience that firsthand, and it’s a very trying experience.”
From 7-9 p.m., participants assembled hygiene kits for St. Anne’s Shelter in the Sky Room of the Shepherd Union Building and watched Dive!, a documentary about Dumpster-diving. Robbins was unable to attend this part of the event, so Shaylee Wheeler, a WSU graduate who works as a program assistant for the CIC, and volunteer Bret Lechtenberg, a sophomore in business, were put in charge.
Mary White, a junior in health promotions, didn’t stay the night, but helped assemble the kits as part of her ROTC service hours.
“Within the nation, it’s awesome just to be helping with something bigger than yourself . . . We don’t always think about other people and what other people’s situations are; we think about ourselves normally,” White said. “It’s human nature to think about ourselves, what our needs are, whereas you sometimes need to put yourself back in that place where it’s just doing service for others and being a good Samaritan.”
When participants were still building the kits, Wheeler said attendance might end up being too low to justify spending the night, but the campout ultimately proceeded as planned. Representatives from the WSU sorority, Delta Chi Nu, were among those who built cardboard shelters and stayed the night.
However, Homeless Awareness Week had not proceeded as planned up to that point. A homeless panel, featuring a representative from St. Anne’s Shelter and a formerly homeless individual, was scheduled for Wednesday, but fell through due to a lack of publicity. Students were also invited to build cardboard houses for the campout in a competition, which was first scheduled for Tuesday. Due to safety regulations on how long the boxes could take up space in the Bell Tower Plaza or the Atrium, the event was moved to Thursday, but fell through again due to lack of attendance, which stemmed from confusion over when the event took place. Robbins said the scheduled events leading up to the campout “probably couldn’t have gone worse.”
Students who stayed the night were allowed to bring blankets and coats, but were discouraged from bringing air mattresses, tents, iPods or other luxuries that homeless people typically would not have.
“It’s supposed to be a fun event, but it’s also supposed to be an awareness event, to kind of see what it would really be like if you were homeless,” Wheeler said.
Karlii Clark, a nursing freshman, was among those who built a shelter out of cardboard and stayed the night.
“I guess I wanted to know how it is to stay outside, no bed or anything,” she said. “. . . I’m excited.”
What many students don’t realize, Robbins said, is that “homeless” doesn’t just mean strangers on street corners. Though their situations often go unreported because they can be difficult to detect, many college students must live out of their cars or stay with friends because they don’t have any real place to call home. Robbins said still more students go hungry for days because they don’t have money to buy food.
“You’ve gone through one night, well, imagine if this is your life,” Robbins said of the campout. “You don’t shower, you just sleep out in these boxes. What does that do to you mentally? What does that do to you physically? It only makes your situation worse and harder. . . . You get to spend a night in their shoes, and you get to experience firsthand what they must go through on a daily basis. And that raises awareness.”