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Being homeless not for pretenders, but Sleep Out event offers unique opportunity to consider homeless experience

Sleep Out Chicago participants pitched their sleeping bags outside St. James Cathedral in 2019 in support of homeless youth. This will be the event’s fifth year.
Sleep Out Chicago participants pitched their sleeping bags outside St. James Cathedral in 2019 in support of homeless youth. This will be the event’s fifth year.
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“You wouldn’t last one night.”

Those words, spoken to me some 20 years ago, left a lasting impression.

They came from a homeless young Latino man whom I had met through Southwest Chicago PADS, a homeless shelter serving the Marquette Park area.

During the previous year, I had written several stories about the shelter and about the homeless people who frequented it for help.

On this particular day, I’d been invited to an event at the shelter where I tried to start up a conversation with the quiet young man, whom I knew from past attempts to be reluctant to talk at all, let alone to frankly speak his mind — one reason his words made such an impact.

I’d just shared with him my idea to spend some nights in Marquette Park with the homeless people who lived there — sleeping outside in the park itself — so that I could better understand their lives and write more stories. His response was immediate:

“You wouldn’t last one night.”

He said it without animosity or drama, just stating facts, which only made my embarrassment more complete. My naiveté was showing.

He was right. I wouldn’t have lasted one night out there.

That’s the long back story behind my plans to participate in this year’s Sleep Out Chicago on Nov. 18, when hundreds of Chicagoans are expected to spend the night outdoors to raise awareness about homeless young people and to raise funds for Covenant House Illinois, an organization that cares for them.

Some of the Sleep Out participants will spend the night in the secure courtyard outside Covenant House’s new headquarters in the 2900 block of West Lake Street in East Garfield Park. Many more are expected to join remotely from their own backyards or basements accompanied by family and friends.

After two decades of reporting on the issue, I realize that homelessness is not something you can experience by camping out, not even on a cold autumn night in Chicago with nothing but a sleeping bag and a cardboard box for protection.

But I admire the people who are willing to face even that level of discomfort to better appreciate the obstacles faced by homeless people and to demonstrate their commitment to helping them.

“It’s an amazing experience. It changes your perception of people who have these challenges,” said Jim Coleman, Accenture’s senior managing director in Chicago and chairman of this year’s fundraising effort.

This is the fifth consecutive year of Sleep Out Chicago in support of Covenant House, a national organization targeting homeless people ages 18 to 24 that opened a drop-in shelter here in 2017 in the old Lawson House YMCA building on Chicago Avenue.

In its newly opened West Side facility in a former industrial building, Covenant House expects to expand its overnight shelter bed capacity to 40 over the next year, then to 60 soon afterward, up from its current 12.

In addition to housing, Covenant House provides its previously homeless clients with meals, educational services, health care, mental health services, job training and more — to help them get their young lives back on track.

Coleman said he’s participated in Sleep Out since the first event here in 2017 and said he’s stuck it out through the night each time, even the year it snowed.

“I can’t say I’ve slept through the night,” he hastened to add.

Most people never consider the noises faced by homeless people trying to sleep outdoors in the city — the car horns, sirens and more that we shut out in our homes, Coleman said.

Still, Coleman concedes, that’s the easy part of being homeless.

“The hard part is finding a place that’s safe,” he noted.

It’s the sense of insecurity that goes with truly being homeless, the not knowing where you will next lay your head whether that’s on the street or a friend’s couch, that can’t be simulated by well-meaning supporters.

“We’re not pretending that we’re homeless,” emphasized Johnpaul Higgins, associate director of development for Covenant House, calling the Sleep Out an “experiential fundraiser unlike any other event.”

To date, Covenant House Illinois has relied entirely on private funding, but that could soon change. The organization has applied for city homeless service dollars, Higgins said.

I plan to sign up and bring my sleeping bag to Covenant House on Nov. 18. Higgins said the organization will provide the cardboard boxes — and some educational programming.

On my own, I still wouldn’t last one night, but with the group support, maybe I can survive long enough to tell you about it.