Wrapt in their sleeping bags to stay cozy through the chilly night, students slept on tarps or the grass in Britt Lawn the night of Tuesday, May 22. The event was Sleep Out. Students were there to raise awareness and learn, themselves, about homelessness and housing insecurity in the Rogue Valley. More than just a fundraiser or awareness event, students participating in Sleep Out built a cohesive community amongst themselves through ice breaker exercises in which they chose to expose their vulnerabilities in a safe space. Participants spoke and actively listened in an open format discussion about housing insecurity for college students following a dinner with representatives from Maslow Project—a local non-profit that works with youth and families facing housing insecurity.
Luis Berrios-Hayden, an ECOS civic engagement coordinator and Environmental Science and Policy major at SOU, put on Sleep Out. Berrios-Hayden was inspired by his own trouble with housing security, once having had to live on friend’s couch for six months. Currently, he is having a difficult time finding housing for next year.
Despite not having raised any funds, Sleep Out was successful in all its other goals which including: educating students and building community cohesiveness. “The education part went really well, I think. Not just for the participants, but for myself too. It’s not a population that I have been ignorant of,” explained Berrios-Hayden. He continued, “but there are so many layers to them, so I feel like I definitely learned a lot more.”
The event coordinator was not alone in his struggle with housing insecurity, and others participated to learn more about homelessness. Using an event like “Sleep Out” to provide the safe space for participants, some of whom were total strangers before the event, to share deeply personal experiences with each other was effective in working towards shared community understanding and compassion.
Berrios-Hayden explained: “It seemed like people felt more comfortable with each other as the evening progressed and maybe some friendships built. People definitely had an opportunity to be vulnerable and receive compassion from each other. I think those are fundamental pieces to community.”
This part of the event attempted to simulate building community and compassion for homeless individuals. Breaking down fears and stereotypes is the first step towards instituting solutions. This may be due to the stigmas around homelessness. Melinda Barnhardt, an executive assistant for Maslow Project, was asked at dinner if anyone is ever afraid to seek aid because of a stigma of laziness attached to receiving shelter aid. She replied, “Yes, definitely. There are people who won’t come in until it gets really bad because of that projection.”
Stereotypes may be compounding their situations, too. “It makes it really difficult to find them housing. I see it a lot,” Barnhardt exclaimed. “There are a lot of high school students who who don’t access our services at first due to the stigma.”
According to the US Department of Education, 60,000 college students under the age of 21 in the United States are homeless, meaning they lack affordable, safe, or secure housing. Despite the large number of college students without homes, Maslow Project does not currently have a resource center on any college campus. Barnhardt said, “There is no person for these students. It might be a bit of a gap.” However, she expressed her hope that their outreach coordinator could look into opening an access center on RCC and SOU campuses in the future.
Sleep Out attempted to address the harm in perpetuating homlessness stereotypes, and Berrios-Hayden explained that Sleep Out was not meant to be a simulation of the experience of homelessness. Daryl Burks, a non-traditional student majoring in creative writing, shared his own story of homelessness in Denver, Colo. when a group of news reporters decided to sleep on the streets for a night, but with cameras behind their backs and warm beds waiting for them at home. “It was offensive,” said Burks. “They showed no compassion.” He felt Sleep Out was different.
Following the event were refreshments for participants and Maslow Representatives, but this privilege was not lost on participants as it was highlighted that, more than housing insecurity, hunger is still a major problem for the homeless population. In the Rogue Valley, homeless youth go hungry twice the rate as other youth.
During dinner, representatives dispelled myths about homelessness in the Rogue Valley. One one of these, that most homeless youth are runaways, Bryanna Trevino disproved. Trevino, a family advocate with Maslow Project, said that she sees the biggest causes of homelessness in the Rogue Valley as “…without any exact percentages. Mental health but also a lack of housing in this area, as the cost of living just keeps going up.”
There is no affordable housing project in the Rogue Valley, either, the representatives said. Maslow Project has an outreach coordinator, and they are pushing to build one in Medford. Maslow directs their clients to apply for Section-8 and HUD. The waitlist, however, is currently two to three years. Many people end up living in motels. “Many of our clients work multiple jobs and are paying $400 per month living in a motel, and there is still no way to save money,” said Trevino.
Berrios-Hayden said he plans on helping facilitate Sleep Out again next year, continuing to put the focus on community building and educating students on helpful resources. A goal of his is to also expand the fundraiser aspect.