Learning homelessness by living it

Three students huddled around the grill trying to warm themselves up as the raindrops sizzled on the dying embers. Kadie Dellacamera, Mike Lefebvre, and Heather Slater were among several students who set up cardboard boxes on Thursday evening only to have their makeshift shelters cave in under the early Friday morning rain.

“Hunger is such a minor discomfort compared to this,” said Dellacamera, a Green Mountain student who helped set up a 30-hour famish at her school.

Students were participating in Castleton’s Box City, hosted by the Social Issues Club and Community Service Club to raise awareness of the magnitude of homelessness in Vermont.

“Always, you have people who form opinions and don’t have the facts,” said Stephanie Johnson, a Social Issues Club member. “The misconception is that people choose to be homeless, choose to be hungry.”

About 20 students, including six from Green Mountain, slept outside of Coffee Cottage Thursday night in an attempt to replicate a homeless setting. Two students from Green Mountain, Ashley Case and Joshua Olson , walked along the rail trail for two-and-a-half hours from Poultney to Castleton to reach the box city and further the impact.

“It’s a cool way to spread the message,” Olson said.

“In the cold and rain,” Case added.

“It’s kind of hard not to notice,” Olson replied.

For warmth, they were allowed a sleeping bag and a fire set up next to the tarp-covered box city.

“If this were like a real thing, they’d give us a forty in a brown paper bag, newspapers, and tell us to stay outside,” Lefebvre said.

Although agreeing that the stimulation was unlike the real experience, Johnson hoped that people began to realize “that it could happen to anyone.”

After setting up the boxes, students headed to Castleton Hall where they were served soup and bread – like meals served in a soup kitchen.

Students listened to local resident Nikki Stone talk about her homeless experience as her son Michael played with her umbrella in the background. Stone now works for the Rutland County Housing Coalition helping people who are in the position she was in four years ago.

“I wanna help and make a difference,” Stone said. “If out of ten, only one gets a safe place, that negates all the other stuff.”

After her talk and some discussion, students went to the campus center where they watched two videos based in Vermont – one on homelessness and one on hunger.

“It’s kinda depressing seeing these people living on the streets struggling being with children and having families,” Olson.

When the movies ended, so did the warmth.

Students went back to the box city to spend the night and try to keep warm and more importantly, dry. With the wind blowing the tarps around, rain leaked onto the boxes, collapsing several of them.

While most students stayed throughout the night, the Green Mountain students, who did not have the leisure of the tarp, left around 4 a.m.

“I came to get an idea of what it is really like to not have a place to sleep,” Green Mountain student Jen Aistion said, “It’s easy to think about, but not to go through.

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