Aurora University students walking past the quad on Friday night were greeted by a strange sight – about 200 of their fellow students sleeping outside.
They brought tents and sleeping bags, and some erected cardboard structures to keep the chill night air out. But they weren’t there for fun. Participants in the first-ever Sleep Out in the Quad were hoping to call attention to the homelessness problem in the Fox Valley, and help out Hesed House, an organization doing a lot to combat that problem.
The Sleep Out was shepherded by Kristin Johnson and Jonathan Dean, fellows with the university’s Wackerlin Center for Faith and Action. But Johnson said the idea—and the weeks of planning that followed—came mainly from the students themselves.
Senior Gwen Tsuji, one of the students who helped organize the Sleep Out, said the idea grew from a pair of student organizations dedicated to human rights and social work. She brought it to Johnson and Dean, who were thinking about the same idea. Tsuji and seven of her fellow students created and crafted the event.
“We’re hoping to raise awareness in a big way on campus,” Tsuji said.
Johnson said she was hoping for 100 students to sign up for the Sleep Out, and was delighted to get 190. Similarly, donations of clothing and other items to Hesed House far exceeded her hopes.
Before heading outside, students got to hear Ryan Dowd, Hesed House’s executive director, take the stage at the University Banquet Hall to talk about homelessness. And he gave them some sobering numbers.
Every week, 16 new people find themselves homeless and show up at Hesed House’s door, he said. That means in order for the shelter’s system to work, staff there needs to get 16 people out and into their own apartments each week. The average stay for a Hesed House guest is 14 days, Dowd said, though some stay much longer—eight percent are there for a year or more.
The shelter is built to house 145 people, but just this past August, they were faced with 214 looking for help at once.
Dowd encouraged students to get involved, to volunteer. But he also challenged them to change their own preconceptions about homelessness, and about the people it affects.
“The singular difference between those who are homeless and those who aren’t is the roof,” he said. “They either have a roof over their heads, or they don’t. The face of homelessness can be a nine-year-old girl, a 65-year-old man, a family of four.”
It was Debbie Larson who drove that point home. Larson, 59, is a guest at Hesed House. She told her story—she lost her husband, her baby and her mother all within a few years, was the victim of identity theft, and turned to alcohol as a result. But now, she has been sober for 13 years, and she works with other guests at Hesed.
“Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you,” she said. “It can, because of one bad decision.”
When one student asked her what she has gained most from her experience, she said, “To trust, to love, not to put anyone down for what they’re going through. Don’t judge people, because you never know what they’re going through."
Check out the video for interviews with local students.