Sleep-out with a purpose: Understanding homelessness

There were no comfy mattresses, fun movies or tasty meals during this sleep-out.

Last weekend, a group of Heidelberg students participated in the Seneca County Council on Homelessness Sleep Out, a tent city aimed at simulating homelessness and raising awareness in our community. The event also was a fundraiser for the council.

Participants were given a cardboard box, which would be their “home” for the event. The tents were located at the Transformational Life Center on West Market Street, the location of an emergency homeless shelter.

Although amenities such as meals and restroom facilities were provided, the participants had to sleep on the pavement in the elements, for example, helping them begin to understand the plight of homeless individuals and what they encounter on a daily basis.

Living the experience, even if for a day or two, made reality set in.

“We’ve been talking about homelessness in my Contemporary U.S. Social Issues class, and I believe it’s better to understand the problem by living or seeing it, instead of watching videos or reading about it,” said junior criminology and psychology major Haley Cruikshank. 

For senior Sarah Shoots, a business administration major, the experience provided a new level of empathy. 

“I wanted to participate in the experience because I felt it was important to fully understand the struggles of homelessness,” Sarah said.

The Sleep-out was a positive learning experience for her. “I gained even more empathy for the homeless population and the issues that they have to deal with on a daily basis,” she says. “The cold was a big factor that I struggled with and I now worry about how the winter affects these people’s lives.”

While the experience initially felt like camping out to Haley, that quickly changed when the temperatures dipped into the 40s overnight.

“When it came to sleeping, it was extremely cold and for the first time in my life, I slept with my shoes on,” she said. “It made me realize that individuals who are homeless don't get to wear all the layers of clothing we brought when we spent the night. I can't imagine how homeless individuals feel when it's winter.

“It made me realize that homeless individuals experience harsh environments and I need to appreciate everything I have in my life that I take for granted.”

The 'Berg students returned to campus with new perspectives.

The mission of the Seneca County Council on Homelessness is to bring awareness and understanding of homeless situations with the community. Members have worked in collaboration with many health and humans service community partners to develop an emergency homeless shelter – the Transitional Life Center – to provide housing and resources to individuals and families who are in crisis and in need of a place to stay and a meal. 

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