Teens think outside the box about homelessness by sleeping in one

Teens listen to homeless youth and speakers from aid agencies
Teen participants in "Night on the Street" heard from homeless youth and people with agencies who help them.
Photo By: Emmet Kowler
Teens set up their "box villages" in the parking lot where they'll sleep
Teens spent the night in "box villages" in the parking lot of Plymouth Congregational Church.
Photo By: Emmet Kowler
“Now I know what homelessness is really like. It’s not fun. You’re cold, hungry, and it’s impossible to sleep well.” -- Qa'id Walter, 13

At sundown on April 16, a chilly Friday night in Minneapolis, 13-year-old Qa’id Walter’s feelings on homelessness were rather lighthearted.

“Homelessness doesn’t seem so bad,” he said. “It sounds kinda easy and ya know, maybe a little fun.”

This was before he had a chance to spend a 46-degree night sleeping in a refrigerator size cardboard box in a church parking lot. At 1 a.m., a man wandered down the street next to the parking lot screaming and swearing.

The next morning, Qa’id collapsed his home for the night and said: “Now I know what homelessness is really like. It’s not fun. You’re cold, hungry, and it’s impossible to sleep well.”

Qa’id was with his small youth group from Masjid An-Nur, a mosque in Minneapolis, at an annual event called “A Night on the Street,” an event to raise awareness and money to support services for teen homelessness.

He was spending the night in a box with more than 300 teens because he wanted to see what homelessness was really like.

Most teens are about 15 when they first experience homelessness, according to the Wilder Foundation, a leading researcher on homelessness. In its most recent study, Wilder discovered the number of homeless people in Minnesota had increased considerably. Every three years, during the month of October, Wilder counts all the homeless people it can find. In 2006, it counted 7,751 homeless people. That jumped to 9,452 in 2009.

Of those more than 9,000 people, 1,207 were homeless youth on their own.

According to a 2006 Wilder Foundation survey of homeless youth, things like fighting with parents, abuse, neglect, being kicked out and drug and alcohol use caused them to be homeless.

For six years, the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Association in south Minneapolis has been putting on A Night on the Street. This year, 300 teens in youth groups from Twin Cities’ churches, synagogues, and mosques all converged on the Plymouth Congregational Church parking lot at Franklin and Nicollet to participate.

A spaghetti dinner was served and teens had the chance to hear stories about what it’s like to be homeless from speakers who had previously been homeless or speakers from organizations like Face to Face, an organization that helps homeless youth ages 11-23.

They also watched a play by the zAmya Theater Project, a theater group made up of homeless and “housed” actors.

One of the main goals of the event was to raise $50,000 for homelessness. Teens were asked to help with this by raising at least $140, which represents the $20 a day it costs to provide housing for one homeless youth for one week.

Karl Wholo-Sourney, a 14-year-old from Temple Israel synagogue raised $410 dollars for this cause, simply through people’s donations. All the money raised will go towards the funding of the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation and their mission to create safe and affordable housing for homeless youth.

Thomas Lawrence from Plymouth church was the No. 1 fundraiser. He managed to raise $1,000 just by asking people for donations.

Most of the participants were attending because they wanted to get more of a feel for the previously abstract idea of homelessness, and because Night on the Street sounded like a fun way to learn about homelessness.

“I didn’t know that homeless teens were so similar to teens that have a home. It makes me feel guilty for looking at them so differently,” 15-year-old Allen Teyvel said after he learned that many homeless teens had the same everyday values as your average teen.

Allen was sitting on the curb with a group of his friends who were attending with a large youth group from Temple Israel. One of Allen’s friends, Jacob Rosenbaum said, “I’m here for the empathy. I want to experience what it’s like to be homeless.”

And many of the participants certainly got that experience. Take 15-year-old Conner from Plymouth Church for example. At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, Conner was standing against a pillar attempting to warm himself as he shivered like crazy. “My views on homelessness have not really changed, but this experience has made them a lot more real to me. It’s really been intensified for me,” he said.

To many of the participants of Night on the Street, it was an emotional and educational experience. As Karl said, “Whenever I see homeless people with no food, no shelter, and no place to go home, it really cuts me deep. It hurts to see people who once had everything, and now had nothing. Especially when I realize that it could be me.”