One Winter Night: A Night of Homelessness

I got home from sleeping on the streets about six hours ago. The weather reported a low of 11 degrees overnight. I spent most of those past six hours in my bed, covered by sheets and blankets, including a heavy down comforter. I still don’t feel completely warm.

I grabbed a cup of hot coffee before coming to sit down at my computer to write. It’s starting to help me warm up.

My lips are chapped and my back is sore. My throat is scratchy and raw, as if I’d been screaming, but I wasn’t. I want to shower, but I’m a little afraid to get completely undressed. I don’t want to feel even slightly cooler air on my skin. I almost didn’t even get out of bed, even though I was hungry.

And still, this pales in comparison to what people without a home experience every night — not in some faraway town, but in MY town.

I gained this intimate perspective of homelessness by participating in One Winter Night, an annual event by C-U @ Home, an organization dedicated to serving our “friends without an address”. For the past few years, this event has generated a sizable portion of their annual operating costs, supporting various shelters, services, and outreach projects.

When I signed up for this fundraiser back in December, I remember thinking, “Hm, it might be a little cold that night.” I had the same thought yesterday as I was preparing for the night, but it took on a much more immediate and nuanced meaning. I found myself filled with uncertainty and dread; even my husband noticed it as he drove me downtown to the event headquarters. Surprisingly, being around other people helped quite a lot. The staff was very friendly and helpful, as were my fellow “box dwellers”. Those sharing the immediate space with me were friendly and conversational, and we huddled together under blankets while sharing a simple meal of PB&J sandwiches and chips. A few friends stopped by with hugs and money, and friendly volunteers came around with cups of hot cocoa. We talked a little bit about whether this event might appear disrespectful to actual homeless people, until a local homeless man came by. He was making his way up and down the streets where our boxes were set up, individually thanking us for doing what we were doing as he passed. I saw him a couple more times during the night, on the same mission.

I remember pacing myself in terms of what I ate and drank, hoping to avoid the need to use one of the portable bathrooms in the middle of the night.

I remember stopping into a local cafe for warmth and a preemptive restroom stop, feeling like an intruder in a place I’ve patronized dozens and dozens of times over the years.

I remember telling myself that I could always go to the event headquarters if I ended up getting too cold in the middle of the night. I did walk down there and stay for about ten minutes before burrowing into my box for the night. And I thought about returning a few times during the night. But part of why I wanted to do this was to get as accurate an experience as possible, and there are plenty of nights where there is no all-night warming station.

I wasn’t able to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time; the sleeping bag I was lying in was only so warm, and although the sidewalk was blessedly dry and free from snow, it’s still a cold, hard surface. The streets were noisy all evening, with people milling about in front of a nearby bar. I found myself lying there, just absorbing the sounds around me. Every so often, I heard someone ask why there were boxes all over the streets. And every time, someone else knew. A couple of times, I could tell that people were picking up the flyers I’d left on top of my box. And for a while, a nearby volunteer was tirelessly asking passersby if they wanted to donate. Once the bars closed, I half expected people to jostle and kick the boxes, but we were left alone. At one point, I heard someone vomit nearby.

I learned how awesome hand warmers are, particularly when stuffed into jeans pockets.

I found myself endlessly preoccupied with not rolling over onto my glasses and breaking them.

I ended up in a position with my arms under my head as a cushion, with one hand covering my face in an attempt to block a nearby light. This created a pocket where my warm breath spread over my face, which felt good overnight but I think may have resulted in some semblance of windburn on my lips by morning.

I discovered that there’s only a small window of time — about an hour — when the downtown streets are truly quiet. Even in that quiet hour, there were still occasional vehicles driving by.

I thought about what the coming day would be like for someone who doesn’t have a home. How the mechanisms of getting out of a bad situation (e.g. finding a job, so as to be able to afford a home) get usurped by the simplest of roadblocks due to lack of what most of us would call basic creature comforts. It really is a perpetual cycle — it’s hard to try and take a class or work a job when you’re constantly tired and cold and on the verge of being sick. And even though there were a couple hundred of us on the streets for this fundraiser, we were still very pointedly ignored by many as they walked by. The feeling of isolation comes on so quickly. I understand now why the focus on helping the homeless falls so plainly on just getting them off the streets. No further progress can be made until that happens, and happens for more than just one night.

For a few months now, I’ve been following the progress of a movement in California called the My Tiny House Project. As the name suggests, they build tiny, simple houses and mobile showers, to serve the homeless community in the Los Angeles area. This serves as the entry point to the larger plan of bringing homeless people fully back into the community. The tiny homes are not insulated, however, which led the city of Los Angeles to confiscate them as a safety hazard. However, other communities across the country — including in states with cold winters like here in Illinois — are beginning to set up communities specifically for tiny houses, directly aimed at providing housing accessibility to the homeless. I think the next step for me will be reconnecting with C-U @ Home to see if this is an initiative they’ve considered, and if so, where they are with it.

At the moment, C-U @ Home is still working to meet their goal of raising $200,000 to support their 2017 budgetary needs. As of this writing, they are only $5,000 away from meeting that goal. They are still accepting donations from last night’s fundraiser, which you can do on their website. If you don’t live near me, I would also highly encourage you to reach out to similar organizations in your area.

In the past month, we’ve seen a lot of upheaval on a national scale. We’ve also seen people band together in staggering numbers. If we can take even a portion of that energy and direct it at helping the homeless, we will have taken an incredibly huge step toward building stronger communities. And if you live near me, I would highly encourage you to participate in next year’s One Winter Night. You can get information on that next winter by following C-U @ Home on Facebook and Twitter. I promise you an unforgettable experience.

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