A Cold Night Out To Raise Awareness

Detroit Road is never quieter than at five o’clock in the morning. With a light snow falling, illuminated by the bright and colorful signs of half a dozen Lakewood businesses, it’s strangely peaceful.

But, the early morning was somewhat less than poetic for several dozen westside teens recently when they participated in a unique experiment in social awareness. For one night, youths at Lakewood Congregational Church and Pilgrim St. Paul Lutheran Church decided to find out what it is like to be homeless during a typical winter in Northeast Ohio.

Early in the afternoon of Saturday, January 27th, the two respective groups were stripped of their cell phones, iPods, money, etc. and put out on the street with only the clothes on their backs and whatever supplies they had collected for their shelter.

Their goal: raise money for, as well as awareness to, the continuing problem of homelessness in our community.

Although it’s my third time with the event (participating the two previous years at Lakewood Congregational Church and this year as one of the adults supervising the “rookies” at Pilgrim St. Paul), I once again found myself amazed at the eagerness and dedication of these young persons.

By early evening a makeshift shantytown was energetically erected using cardboard boxes, blankets, and tarps, strung together with a little tape and a lot of hope that the wind and weather would not be too unkind.

Construction complete, they shifted their attention to the only activity they had to focus on. Creating handmade signs using leftover scraps of cardboard, they began soliciting donations from passing drivers.

However, after only a couple of minutes, reality quickly set in. Without all of their usual electronic diversions, the kids soon discovered that there would be little to do other than sit, wait for handouts, and try to stay warm. It would, indeed, be a long night.

But, truth be told, quite a bit separated the plight of those youths and that of the estimated 2,000 homeless in Cuyahoga County that don’t make it into one of the few Cleveland area shelters each night. We had a fire, warm clothes, relative security, and, above all, the knowledge that any suffering would only be temporary. On top of that, we had something else that eludes most homeless: love and support.

No sooner had the first flakes of snow landed on their heads, then did the first of a steady stream of family and friends stop by to offer freshly prepared food. Pizza, sandwiches, and soup were only part of the veritable smorgasbord. And, the donations followed suit. Although most just passed by, plenty of people pulled over to give cash, or even just the change in their car.

But, as the evening turned to night, the enthusiasm began to recede. While the snow picked up, the donations and well-wishers died down. Time began to crawl.

Eleven o’clock came, marked only by the stoplights switching over to flashing yellow and red.

Eventually calling it a night, the kids put down their signs and cups and crawled into their boxes, only to begin the next struggle - for blankets, for space, and for warmth.

Through the night, the weather took its toll as boxes collapsed under wet snow and tarps flapped unfettered in the wind. But, give them credit - the kids did their best and did not give up.

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, even a busy street such as Detroit Road can be relatively serene early in the morning. However, for the homeless, there is little time to appreciate these things. Long before daybreak, many that sleep on the street will be roused from their slumber and told to move on. And, so it was on this morning.

At six o’clock, the loud, uncaring voice was my own: “Get up!” “Get out!” Boxes were kicked, pushed, and dismantled until the occupants reluctantly left. As the bleary-eyed teens emerged, a small glimpse of the despair experienced by the homeless was becoming all too apparent to them.

During the night, one of the visitors offered his own personal account. Having spent several years on the street, he tried to convey to the kids that, regardless of the circumstances, being homeless was not just a search for food and shelter, but for hope and perseverance. “You start off very positive and think that it’s just bad luck, but one thing leads to another and before you know it, the street grabs you, and it doesn’t ever want to let go.”

Cold and tired, the boxes were cleared and the kids were sent back to the street for donations. Lacking the same enthusiasm of the day before and looking much more the part, they found the undertaking a bit more daunting.

In the end, the doors of the church were opened, and the kids were allowed in. After a service they fought hard to stay awake through, they each got to go home to a hot meal and a warm bed.

I am very grateful for the tremendous show of support from the community and I am truly humbled by the efforts and accomplishments of the youths that night; however, I continue to be somewhat embarrassed at the relative ease by which the donations came.

Make no mistake about it, while we were cold and tired, our stomachs were full and our spirits were strong and it only took hours to raise what it might take a homeless person weeks or even months to save.

The North East Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) estimates that there are around 25,000 people each year in Cuyahoga County alone that can be classified as homeless. Of those, there are approximately 9,000 families and, among them, more than 2,000 children under the age of 18 - children just like the several dozen who volunteered their time in the hope of making a difference. Yet, unlike the kids of Lakewood Congregational and Pilgrim St. Paul, for them, being on the street the morning of January 28th was not a choice.

All told, the two groups were able to collect over $2,500 that night. However, the question remains, was the money given to support the kids or the cause? Would the parents and friends that so willingly brought food to those they knew ever do the same for those that they do not? And, is one night out enough to instill a giving heart in those that get to spend every night in?

If you’d like to help, please log on to www.neoch.org to find an organization through which to make a donation.
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Volume 3, Issue 3, Posted 11:11 PM, 01.29.07