As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, most people are trying to stay indoors and avoid going outside as much as possible.
What if you didn’t have a warm place to go and you were left to endure the freezing cold?
From 7:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 12 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, the Senior Youth Group at Gustavus will be holding an event to raise awareness of homelessness, learn about hunger issues and think about what is being done and can be done to end hunger and homelessness in our communities. Another chance to get involved and for all Gustavus community members to gain a more in-depth understanding of homelessness is from 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14 through 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Richard Leitch, political science and environmental studies professor, led the idea to expand the Sleep Out to three days to get a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a homeless person. During Leitch’s first year at Gustavus, a student organization was holding a one night Sleep Out and welcomed all community members to participate.
“I remember how cold it was and how miserable we all felt when [Campus Safety] came to lock up the Chapel at midnight. We—a group of students, faculty and staff—stayed outside until the next morning, then went on our way. That is the usual experience of participants in a Sleep Out—a one night experience of discomfort, spending time outside and alternately conversing with and commiserating with others,” Leitch said.
The following year, 1997, was a larger event with two days and two nights. The following year, the Sleep Out lasted three nights. “I first offered my First Term Seminar (FTS), The Politics of Homelessness, in the fall of 2001. As part of the course, all students had to participate in the Sleep Out but [to participate, one does] not have to be enrolled in the course. Everyone is welcome to participate,” Leitch said.
“[At] this point in our class we had acquired a lot of information on homelessness through class, readings and movies. While somewhat nervous for the event, it was exciting to become more immersed [in] homelessness. You can only learn so much from reading and watching movies, and this three day event was an opportunity to gain a greater understanding about homelessness,” Junior Communication Studies Major Gunnar Teigen said. Teigen participated in the event his first year at Gustavus.
Leitch wants to focus on perceptions that homelessness is not a challenge, that the people only have themselves to blame for their circumstance. Another perception is that homeless people could easily get their life together to find a job, get food and get a house.
“Participants also learn to appreciate the necessities and privileges they have in their everyday life. Again, we realize that a true homeless person’s experience is much more difficult than anything we will encounter during these three days and three nights, but at least it gives us a better understanding what reality must be like for homeless people,” Leitch said.
Through the experience of homelessness that Leitch’s event provides, participants realize how unrealistic those assumptions are. The event imparts a deeper level of understanding and compassion of the details of homelessness: the insecurity and vulnerability of sleeping in a public place, the inability to shower, not knowing when and what will be the next meal, the boredom that sets in, the continuous stares and comments of those around and yet the compassion and magnanimity shown by strangers.
“What I’ve learned is no one would want to live like this. The Sleep Out at [Gustavus] is pretty tame when you think about it, so for someone to be homeless in say the cities would be even tougher. For individuals to think homeless people want to live this lifestyle is those individuals just having a lack of knowledge on homelessness,” Teigen said.
Leitch also wants to focus on the fact that the event just shows what it feels like for three nights. However, he tells his students that it is only three nights, as they know when the event ends and they can then return to their regular lives. Leitch emphasizes the reality of homeless people, their lack of advantages and most of all not having the knowledge of when it will end.
Leitch has experienced how supportive the Gustavus community has been in the past years with the Sleep Out event, with the Chapel staff being remarkably reasonable, even with the inconvenience, faculty whose students end up falling asleep in class, work-study supervisors and Campus Safety, as well as coaches and conductors. “But at the same time, we also realize that Gustavus is in many ways also reflective of the larger society, particularly the ignorant remarks of some people and the indifference of many who just want it to be out of their sight,” Leitch said.
Leitch believes that Gustavus students who become leaders in society and have participated in a Sleep Out could think back on this experience and make a profound difference for the homeless.
Leitch invites and encourages all Gustavus community members to participate in the Sleep Out. The central location for the event is the Chapel, where a barrel and supply of wood will be near the main entrance. Participants may choose to sleep outside, but they are reminded that a truly homeless person would accept the opportunity to sleep indoors if provided a warm, welcoming place. That is why the Chapel is provided. Leitch would like to remind students who are thinking of participating in the event that it is not an outdoor party, a chance to hang out with friends who are participants or an experience in backwoods survival skills.
“If students and other members of the Gustavus community want to participate in a homelessness experience, join us. It could be one of the most transformative experiences of your Gustavus years.”
“I would encourage students to do it if they are really curious about homelessness. It’s a learning experience [that] won’t cause you great harm. It’s also a great way to save some money on your [declining balance] account!” Teigen said.
“If true homeless people had caring friends [like the studentes participating], they would not be homeless. Homeless people do not have Gander Mountain 40-below-rated sleeping bags, or newly purchased J-Crew subzero parkas. Also remember that homeless people do not have laptops, do not carry cellphones or BlackBerries, do not wear makeup and do not play Hacky Sack or strum a guitar at 3:00 a.m” Leitch said.
“If students and other members of the Gustavus community want to participate in a homelessness experience, join us. It could be one of the most transformative experiences of your Gustavus years. But if you arrive to have fun, please [reconsider joining],” Leitch said.