PROVIDENCE—More than 200 local Catholic high school students learned a lesson they won’t soon forget in breaking the stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness by becoming homeless themselves for the night.
On Sunday night, students representing St. Raphael Academy, St. Mary Academy-Bay View, La Salle Academy, Bishop Hendricken and The Prout School gathered at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence armed with large cardboard boxes and sleeping bags, prepared to sleep at Cathedral Square in 34-degree weather.
The demonstration was a timely one since Rhode Island is currently experiencing the highest levels of homelessness in the state’s history, according to a recent report released by Crossroads Rhode Island.
Anne Nolan, president of Crossroads Rhode Island, spoke at the State House on March 1 detailing the lack of information and support for state residents who end up homeless. Women, particularly, are falling victim to the economy and comprise the fastest growing group of people dealing with homelessness, according to the report.
In the last ten years, the report indicated, the total number of unaccompanied women in Rhode Island homeless shelters rose by 65%, compared to a 5% increase for men. Many who recently had jobs, homes, and families in Cranston, Warwick, Woonsocket, Providence, and Pawtucket are now living homeless on the streets. Crossroads’ women’s shelter, which opened in 2008, now has 60 women nightly despite its 41-person capacity.
“I have a lot of compassion for homeless people. I never think of them as ‘dirty’ or automatically judge their situation as being their fault,” said Prout senior Tory Kern. Having known someone who struggled with homelessness, Kern, who has worked at a soup kitchen for several years, realizes “how very difficult it can be to get out of the cycle of poverty.”
The evening opened with icebreakers, followed by speakers from Voice of Homelessness Speakers Bureau who demonstrated how quick and devastating the fall from normalcy to poverty could be. Carleton Freese’s fulfilling job on a cruise ship ended with a degenerative diagnosis. A heart transplant was followed by years of “couch surfing” while banks refused to cash his social security checks because of his lack of a permanent address.
“I was told I could never work again, could not so much as lift a gallon of milk,” Freese said. “That's when my journey to homelessness began." He mentioned that when he saw he was listed as "indigent" on his medical records, he did not really believe it at first, but then later had to admit it when he found himself sleeping behind boilers with rodents when he had nowhere else to stay but friends’ houses.
Wilma Smith talked about how she turned down her scholarship to Duke University to care for her daughter, whom she had as a teen.
Smith fell prey to the foster care system, from which she was “kicked out” when she turned 18. She struggled through teen pregnancy to finally get back to school and obtain a home for herself and her children.
La Salle senior Ryan Sweeney was eager to take part once again in the ‘Sleep Out’ after attending last year.
“I participated in this last year because my friends made me, but the talks by the speakers was really what made me come back this time,” said Sweeney. “They put a face to the problem and all the statistics. A homeless person isn’t just a person banging a cup. It’s not always their fault. I work as a page on the Senate side in the State House, so I see the legislative side of the issue a bit. But tonight, I see it full circle.”
Nick Chrones, a senior at Bishop Hendricken, said that “solidarity with my fellow man” was what brought him back for a second year.
“I’ve been blessed, and I want to help people in any way I can, now and in my future career. People should do anything they can to help out the homeless. It’s a serious problem, and those who can help, should,” Chrones said.
A concelebrated Mass by the schools’ chaplains was followed by a short film on homelessness, assembling care packages for the less fortunate and writing notes for the care package recipients. Packages from the five participating schools included soap from Bay View, toothbrushes and toothpaste from St. Raphael’s, shampoo from La Salle, deodorant from Prout and razors and shaving cream from Hendricken.
Everyone brought a pair of warm socks to donate and blankets were collected as well. Each student also raised at least ten dollars for the diocesan “Keep the Heat On” campaign; many raised several times more. Students then signed advocacy letters to legislators for affordable housing before going outside to a texting-free, heat-free night in boxes on the cement.
“There is no good way to live in a cardboard box. You can’t sleep … it’s not that you’re uncomfortable, just that you are so cold. Some have to go through that and then have to go to school and sit through classes,” reflected Kelly Griffin, an upperclassman at Bay View who is a four-time veteran of boxed overnights, once in the snow. “My parents brought me up to be a person who understands homelessness enough not to believe stereotypes; I’ve helped at Amos House since I was little.”
Andres Taborda is a senior at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, a school that operates its own Soup Kitchen year round, with students volunteering to help those in need locally.
“The first time I slept in a box, it was single digit temperatures and my box flew away; this time I’m more prepared,” said Taborda, who brought along additional layers of warmer clothing this time.
“I work at the State House as head page, and I get to see rallies and people testify whom you would never think were homeless. It has helped me see the value of advocacy.”
His advice for surviving the ‘Sleep Out’: “Wear layers, and shoes, and have a positive perspective. We’re not going to die. We have a warm bed to go to afterwards and they don’t.”
Andres was on the original committee at St. Raphael Academy that started the annual Sleep Out event three years ago with campus minister Nancy Benoit. It always takes place the third Sunday in March, chosen because the following Monday is a diocesan professional day for teachers so students can sleep in their real beds for a night before going back to school. Meetings with informative films and small group discussions take place months before the event so that students will be well prepared for what they encounter.