It’s loud. One thing I wasn’t prepared for. Claustrophobia is threatening to take over. Trying to keep it at bay. Don’t like feeling trapped under so many layers/in the box. It’s super vulnerable. Footsteps sound right next to my head. Anyone could kick my head or mess with my box at any time. Vulnerability is definitely the main thing I’m feeling. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable even with all my stuff. People do this with less stuff every night. 6 AM seems far away.”
This is the note I wrote on my phone at 1:20 AM when I was attempting to sleep in a cardboard box on the ground in downtown Champaign. I wanted to capture how I was feeling in that moment. Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect, I want to share what I learned through my experience of being homeless for a night.
At the beginning of February, I spent 12 hours on the streets of Champaign, experiencing homelessness for a night. It was a fundraiser for a great organization called CU at Home, which focuses on homeless outreach in Champaign-Urbana and ministers to people without an address, helping them get back on their feet and treating them with dignity and compassion in the process.
So February 1st, I packed up all my stuff, checked in, set up my box, and settled in for the night. Luckily, I had a friend who did it last year and served as my guide, helping me get my box set up and giving me tips for getting through the night. We set our boxes up next to each other so I had a friendly face to get me through the night. It took 3 trips from my car to bring the several sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, and extra clothing that I brought to survive the 20-degree weather. And then my sister also had to bring me a pair of boots and an extra blanket when I realized I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was.
After grabbing some dinner, walking around, and checking out headquarters, we settled into our spots around 9:15 pm. For around an hour and a half, we sat outside our boxes just chatting and saying hi to people on the street. I passed the time by checking my social media. My sister and some friends stopped by to see me. My dad brought me hot chocolate. And then we headed into our boxes to attempt to sleep around 11 pm.
Why am I telling you the whole timeline of our night? One thing that I didn’t think about before last Friday was how I would pass the time. We go to work, go to the gym, cook dinner or go out to eat, clean the house, read a book, watch TV, play with the kids, meet up with friends, etc. There is always something to do to fill the time. When I was in the box, time passed so slowly. I tried to read, I checked my phone a million times, I attempted to sleep, but no matter what I did, time was crawling. When you’re on the streets, you probably don’t have an iPhone to keep you occupied. You might not even be able to get library books. You’re not watching TV. You’re not cleaning your house or going out to eat and you might not be going to work. How do you fill your days? How do you fill your nights? I think this is one of the reasons that organizations like CU at Home are so important – their daytime drop-in center gives people who don’t have anywhere to go somewhere to spend their days, somewhere to pass the time.
So, after getting into our boxes at 11, I tried to sleep for a little while. The problem was that it was loud. People were walking by regularly. The bar across the street was playing music. People outside of the bar were having loud conversations. My head was only a few feet from the sidewalk where people were walking and I didn’t feel very safe. There was a tarp on the end of my box facing the sidewalk, so I couldn’t see who was walking by and they couldn’t see me. But I still just felt exposed. Vulnerable. Out in the open. At one point I had myself convinced that there was someone standing outside of my box and I was completely freaked out. And then I started feeling claustrophobic because I was under 4 layers of blankets and facing away from the open end of my box and getting out quickly would not happen if I needed it to. I dozed off for a few minutes. I tried to read for a while. But even with a mat underneath me to keep out the cold, two thick sleeping bags, a pillow, and a big blanket, it was uncomfortable. The ground was hard. You could only move so much. Sitting up was out of the question. I had all of this stuff to get me through the night, and I was still uncomfortable. All of this stuff had taken me 3 trips to my car to get. Homeless people don’t have a car to transport their stuff in. They don’t have the luxury of spending one night on the street and then heading home to actually sleep in a warm apartment with a soft bed.
Every single day, the majority of you reading this is living a blessed life. You are living a better life than many people in the world. Even with your struggles, even with your own financial issues and personal issues. If you have a roof over your head and food in your stomach, your life is blessed. And we take it for granted. We complain that our internet is slow, or our apartment is small, or our power bill is too high, or our job sucks, or our phones aren’t the newest version, or we don’t have anything to wear. We complain about having to go grocery shopping, or do laundry, or pay our bills. Some people would feel blessed to have money to buy groceries. Some people would feel blessed to have a home that they have to pay a water bill for. Some people would feel blessed to have a washer and dryer. Some people would feel blessed to have a job that pays the bills. Some people would feel blessed to have the internet, or an apartment, or a phone.
This isn’t to say that if you have these things you are not allowed to have struggles, or feel sad, or want more. Its just a reminder to feel blessed where you are and be grateful for what you have, even if you’re working for more or even if you are struggling right now. Be grateful for your life.
To say being homeless for a night was eye-opening would be an understatement. I often catch myself feeling less than compassionate when I see someone asking for money on the side of the road. The stories of the few people who make a living begging for money and then go home to their houses at the end of the day have made me distrustful. I work hard for my money and don’t have a ton of extra to spare, so if I’m going to give money to someone, I want it to actually be someone who needs it and someone who it will make a difference for. This experience was a much-needed wake up call to be more compassionate to others and to be grateful for what I have, and to share my blessings with those who are less fortunate than I am.
As a whole, homeless people are not bums. They are not lazy. They are not people to be looked down upon and to make fun of when you see them on the street. Often, they are normal people who experienced circumstances that they could not manage. Job loss, divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, the number of causes that lead to someone ending up on the street are varied. In my opinion, laziness is rarely the cause. It could happen to anyone without a good support system. It could even happen to people with a good support system. Bottom line – it could happen to you. If you were on the street, how would you want someone to treat you?
I’m a firm believer that those who have enough should find a way to give back to those who do not. I don’t have a ton of extra every month – but I still find little ways to spread my blessings with others. I’m a monthly giver to charity: water, an organization that helps provide access to clean water, and I’m also a monthly giver to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. I donate used clothing and household items to an organization in my community called Salt & Light instead of throwing things out. I try to donate to various community fundraisers. Its not a lot, but its what my schedule and my budget can handle currently. I encourage you to find a way that you can make giving back a part of your life, whether it be financial or donating your time, whatever you can do to make a difference in the lives of others will help make a difference in the world as a whole. Spread the blessings, spread the love, and you will get it back.
Thank you to everyone who donated to my fundraising link for One Winter Night. I ended up almost hitting my goal of $1500, and the organization as a whole beat their goal of $250,000, ending up somewhere over $260,000. I look forward to participating again next year, and hopefully raising even more money for this vital organization.