ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — Though rain and high winds forced most of the 40 students and adults inside during the fifth annual “Homeless for a Night” campout at Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria Nov. 18, it brought greater awareness to the problem of homelessness.
Cardboard boxes, tarps, sleeping bags and extra layers of clothing — only what could fit in a small overnight bag — filled the lawn outside Good Shepherd.
Campers spent time in the afternoon working together to assemble the makeshift cardboard shelters, sometimes laying plastic underneath the boxes for protection from the soggy ground and covering boxes with tarps or plastic bags before going inside for Mass. The campers returned to their shelters at 9 p.m. after an evening full of activities.
Miguel de Angel, director of youth ministry, said the program was inspired by a desire to give the students an experience of tangible service. “We needed something experiential to hopefully draw people out,” he said. “Families and kids have responded.”
The church’s ZIP code — 22309 — has the highest income disparity in the United States, according to Susan Grunder, parish director of social ministry.
Campers learned this and other facts during activities and presentations. They learned about the Point-in-Time Count in Fairfax County, which counts the homeless one night a year. This year, 964 homeless were counted Jan. 25. Campers learned that a significant portion of the homeless in Fairfax County are under age 18.
“Many of the homeless actually have jobs,” said Grunder told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington. “The activities (got) the campers thinking about how hard it can be to have a place to live.”
Madeleine Oertel, grants manager at Covenant House Washington, which helps homeless and exploited youths, gave a presentation to the campers and parishioners.
As part of the campout, parishioners collected boots and socks for the Rising Hope United Methodist Church hypothermia shelter in Alexandria.
Prior to the campout, Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated the vigil Mass and spoke about the World Day of the Poor initiated by Pope Francis, which was taking place for the first time the next day.
“Every day is a day for the poor and for us to respond in compassion and love,” he said. “This designation that Pope Francis has given to us helps us to recognize the poverty that is in our midst. We look at our own poverty — to be poor in spirit is actually a gift. The poverty of spirit helps us realize that without God we have nothing.”
Burbidge blessed the campers at the end of Mass.
“How proud you must be of some of the young people who will tonight participate in the homeless campout to actually experience what it is like to be cold, to be homeless, to have chills, knowing that our brothers and sisters, members of God’s holy family, live that way every day,” said Burbidge.
Isabella Winarski, a fifth-grader at Woodley Hills Elementary School in Alexandria, said the experience taught her that other people go through homelessness for days. “We are doing this for one day,” she said. “When I see them on the streets I think of this and how I experienced it and know how it feels, and it was not a good experience.”
Nicholas Zaso, a freshman at Virginia Tech, said the experience is powerful even if it is only for one night.
“Even if we are not experiencing the whole part of being homeless, it still makes you think about it more and puts you in the mindset to want to do something to help,” Zaso said.
The following morning, campers shared their take on the experience over a pancake breakfast prepared by the Knights of Columbus.
“One thing that came out in the debriefing in the morning was the parallel between the slow removal of comfort — first being outside, then the rain, then the wind, then the temperature drop — and the slow stripping of dignity that people go through as they lose work, or the ability to bathe and wash their clothes to the point that we walk past them without a glance or a word,” said de Angel.
Father Thomas P. Ferguson, pastor, said the students come to understand that when they’re uncomfortable for a night, this is a way of life for some people. The event also prompts some to spend more time “with people who are poor in our diocese helping them improve the conditions of their homes,” he added.
Derek Rogers, youth minister at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna, brought 14 teens to the campout.
“Their parents have blessed them with incredible housing,” he said. “When the teens are in the cardboard box, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have so many blessings.’ When they can have that kind of perspective put in place that is worth it to me.”
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Elliott is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.