Dozens defying frigid temps sleep outdoors to raise awareness of youth homelessness

Covenant House’s Sleep Out event gives participants a feel for what it’s like to be homeless on the streets of Chicago. About 100 will join in person, many others virtually.

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Susan Reyna-Guerrero, executive director of Covenant House Illinois, will spend the night sleeping outdoors in the organization’s courtyard in East Garfield Park. The annual Sleep Out serves to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by homeless youth and to help raise funds for Covenant House’s mission.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dressed in several warm layers, dozens will spend a freezing night outdoors at Covenant House in East Garfield Park to experience the discomfort of homelessness first-hand.

About 100 people registered to participate in the sixth-annual Sleep Out at Covenant House Chicago headquarters in the 2900 block of West Lake Street, Covenant House officials said. The participants will sleep under the stars in a fenced-off lot adjacent to the building. Hundreds more are expected to join the event remotely in their own backyards or basements.

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A discussion on homelessness was held before the start of the Sleep Out. Temperatures were forecast to drop to the mid-20s overnight.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

They signed up despite a frigid forecast. Temperatures are expected to dip to the mid-20s by Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The wind chill should make it feel even colder, with gusts around 20 mph.

This is the second time that Susan Reyna-Guerrero, executive director of Covenant House Illinois, is spending the night in the frigid air for the Sleep Out. She said the first time “was an incredible experience in humility because you’re out in the cold, and no matter what you do you can’t get comfortable.”

But for her, the next morning was more impactful, because she realized she had a warm place to retreat to for the rest of the day.

“If you’re somebody that doesn’t have that security, waking up like tonight what am I going to do, who can I talk to to stay on their couch? I didn’t have that sense of dread,” Reyna-Guerrero said. “Lots of young people experiencing homelessness would wake up with that dread.”

Reyna-Guerrero said she knows she’s not going to get a good night’s sleep, but she’s better prepared for the cold this year and wore more layers.

Covenant House is a national organization targeting homeless people ages 18 to 24. The organization provides housing, meals, education services, health care, mental health services, job training and more for its clients.

The organization said an estimated 14,000 young people experience homelessness every day in Chicago, and the Sleep Out is an act of solidarity with those people to let them know that they aren’t alone.

The idea isn’t to pretend to be homeless, said Johnpaul Higgins, director of development at Covenant House Illinois, adding that the exercise provides just a small example of what those experiencing homelessness in Chicago have to deal with.

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At last year’s Sleep Out, volunteers set sleeping bags over cardboard boxes in the Covenant House courtyard. The idea isn’t to pretend to be homeless, one organizer said.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“The biggest difference for us is the concept of choice. We choose to be outside, we can also choose at any given time to come back inside,” Higgins said. “Some young people don’t have that privilege.

“Our youth sometimes have jobs that they go to the following day, or go to school,” Higgins said. “We have to tough it out for only one night; our youth face this prospect every night.”

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