With uneasy feelings, yet adventurous hearts, members of professor Richard Leitch’s First Term Seminar class, called Politics of Homelessness, along with other students at Gustavus Adolphus College, packed up their necessities and said goodbye to their cell phones, laptops, and personal hygiene. These brave students ventured off of their mainstream trail of life, to raise awareness of homelessness and experience the life of the homeless first-hand.
This year marked the 14th year of the SleepOut event at Gustavus. The event began Sunday, Nov. 13 and ended on Wednesday, Nov. 16. These specific dates are in conjunction with National Hunger & Homelessness week. Leitch said that it also intentionally occurs the week before Thanksgiving break. “This creates a perfect opportunity for students to put this activity into context and start a great conversation at Thanksgiving with the family. The point is to shock people.”
The SleepOut event has always been a student-led organization, however, this year Leitch was delighted, when he was approached by the Zeta Chi Phi Sorority, which asked to sponsor this event. “We felt that it was critical to experience homelessness, even on this small and structured scale, if we wanted to inform others about it,” said sorority member Claudia Martinez. “It was a wonderful experience because people would ask why we were carrying all our belongings, or why we looked so tired, and that just created an opportunity to talk to others about the issue.”
The Zeta’s are also co-sponsoring a homelessness benefit with the Womyn’s Awareness Center at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 in the Courtyard Café. Proceeds from the event will be split between the Theresa House in Mankato and the People Serving People shelter in Minneapolis. Along with dinner catered by St. Peter based El Agave, speaker Michael Dahl will be presenting interesting information about homelessness and its specific affect on women.
In regards to her own SleepOut experience, first-year student Jenna King described it as a very beneficial experience. While she was certainly worried about attracting unwanted attention, she was not worried about starvation. She described herself as “a luxury homeless.” “We still have our dignity, compared to actually being homeless,” said King.
During Leitch’s first experience with the SleepOut in 1997, he recalls the event being held for only one night on a Friday, lasting until 6 a.m. that Saturday. He compared it to a school dance, where people could freely hang out without necessarily having to sleep. To him, this wasn’t necessarily beneficial to anyone but the participants.
To maximize the experience for students, Leitch makes a point to ask his class what improvements could be made for the following year. With constructive advice from participants, the SleepOut event was slightly tweaked this year. In the past, students were allowed to sit in the Market Place on campus in front of the food belt to collect food.
“This year we did not sit and wait for food,” said Leitch. “There were many resources around campus, like the banquet hall, for example, which always seemed to have leftover rolls and other desserts.”
Students were also required to sleep in a visible, public place to present the gruesome reality of homelessness to their fellow students.
After 14 years, the SleepOut has become a highly respected annual event on campus that has had a powerful, life-long affect on its participants. “It really makes me appreciate my bed, freedom to eat when I want, showering, and having activities to do, rather than just sitting around,” first-year student, Megan Eckman said.
Every year, Leitch looks forward to the time during the event when the students reach their breaking point. “When students get overly tired, are cold, and sore, they are able to observe others and make amazing statements about what motivates them to act on this issue,” he said.
After going through this distinct, life-changing experience, King said her opinion has drastically changed toward the homeless. “I will definitely be more empathetic towards them,” she said “In the future, I will be more motivated to reach out towards them, as poverty continues to occur and something really needs to be done.”
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