A few months ago, I was invited to a homeless awareness event where people would be sleeping outdoors for the night in an effort to understand the plight of people experiencing homelessness. At this event, they would be giving out a prize for the “best makeshift shelter” and a prize for the best “street performance.” I was up front with this group and commended their desire to raise awareness about homelessness and the issues surrounding homelessness in West Virginia. Though their intentions were really good in that they were aiming to raise awareness about homelessness, homelessness is a traumatic event that should not be taken lightly.

Do you think they they stopped to think that their “best decorated makeshift shelter” could be someone’s only place to stay out of the rain? Did they think that the best “street performance” could be someone experience homelessness’ only source of income? I understand that they wanted to raise money and awareness, but why pretend to be homeless?

There is no way that one night camping out is going to give you the full experience of being homeless.

I want you to close you eyes, take deep breath, a pause for a moment (then you’ll have to open them to keep reading)...

Go!

Cold.  Scared. Hungry. Nervous. Physically ill. Embarrassed. Angry. Imagine trying to survive. For days. Months. Years.

These are real situations, encountered daily across West Virginia by people who are experiencing homelessness. So I hope you will think about these situations as you lay down to “sleep out.”  Tomorrow, you will wake up, go to your apartment or your dorm room but someone else will hunker down again homeless in West Virginia while you sleep in your warm bed. Was your event effective for them? Or did it just make you feel good? How did your event would affect someone who had experiences homelessness if they saw it on the news or in the paper? Or how did it affect someone who lost a family member or a friend to homelessness?

Thanks to efforts like an adoption of a Housing First philosophy and an influx of Rapid Rehousing funding in the state of West Virginia, the number of people sleeping outdoors each night in 2016 has decreased dramatically in the WV Balance of State Continuum of Care's geography, a 75% decrease in fact. (The BoS represents 80% of WV). Only 84 people are sleeping outside on any given night in the WV Balance of State CoC. Both Housing First and Rapid Rehousing puts people directly from the streets into permanent housing without preconditions to sobriety, service participation and income and have lead to this massive decrease over the past year.

So how to do you make your awareness event one that is not kitschy to one that is productive?

  1. Go out and do some outreach instead of pretending to be homeless for the night. Go meet people who are experiencing homelessness. Ask them about their lives. Learn their stories. Direct them to housing services in your community.
  2. Raise money for HOUSING. Only housing ends homelessness. Partner with your local Rapid Rehousing providers or Permanent Housing programs. Find out how you can help them in their quest to rapidly end homelessness for individuals and families. Panhandle for a purpose.
  3. Keep in mind that this type of event should not be FUN. This isn’t a fun time to get together with your friends, giggle, play games and win prizes.
  4. Invite advocates to speak.
  5. Just stop pretending to be homeless.