On a late-night whim two weeks ago, I signed us up for the Sleepless San Diego experience. It's been two years since I posted about Little Sis's optimistic appraisal of a homeless encampment near our neighborhood; in the meantime, the encampments have expanded as the effects of the struggling economy and our daughters' curiosity and concern have grown. Over the summer, Husband and the girls harvested vegetables from the school garden and delivered them to a local shelter and soup kitchen. Sleepless San Diego seemed like another opportunity to immerse our daughters in a memorable educational experience about the plight of people who are homeless, the resources available to assist them, and how we, too, can help.
The girls and I registered as a team, with a minimum fundraising goal of $25 each, and sought sponsors through Facebook. On Saturday evening, armed with sleeping bags, pillows, and hats and jackets, and the donations of generous friends, we joined 700 other folks and a host of volunteers from the San Diego Rescue Mission at a local park. We staked out three cots and then got busy circulating among resource booths, where Big and Little Sis learned about various ways groups and organizations are providing for the homeless in our city. The girls helped decorate paper bags that would be filled with food and distributed to local school children the following Friday for their families for the weekend. We learned that children of all ages can volunteer at Feeding America warehouses.
There was an incredible spirit of jubilance and camaraderie among the participants and volunteers. Across from the resource booths were games for children and face painting. As the line for the balloon man grew longer, a group representing a church's "Ladle" service tried to draw attention to its free samples. "Hey," yelled a witty volunteer, "we have soup in the shape of balloons over here!"
Part of the experience is the opportunity to build a cardboard "shelter" out of boxes and duct tape, and we watched several groups create elaborate roofed habitats (props to the boys "next door" to us!) before we set up our own walled (and cozy) structure. This activity was more of a fun fort-building challenge than a lesson in resourceful survival; as this article in the San Diego Union Tribune asserts, the aim of the Sleepless program is not to simulate actual homelessness, but to raise awareness and dedicate one's thinking, community, and sleeping time to the cause for half a day, and then hopefully more.
After a $5-each dinner of burgers, chips, and drinks, the girls and I joined throngs of teens from local church and school groups down at the stage for dancing and performances from musical troupes including a steel drum band from a downtown school serving students impacted by homelessness, and a youth percussion group making rhythm with garbage cans, tether balls, water bottles, and brooms.
When the girls grew anxious to snuggle back in our cardboard-and-cot nest, we headed back to our spot, burrowed down in our bags and listened to documentary and live testimonials of formerly homeless teens, individuals, and parents, many of whom struggled with addiction and untreated mental illness. Big Sis, in particular, was riveted.
|Little Sis slumbered sweetly.|
I slept on and off, thinking about the role of faith and community in healing people who have experienced abuse, rejection, and the degradation of homelessness, and was particularly moved by a 31-year-old mother's story. "There but for fortune go you or I," I acknowledged silently. She could be the parent of my student. My former student. My friend, my neighbor.
The next morning a high-decibel blaring of Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" roused us at 5:30. Our cardboard casa had collapsed, and our pillows, bags, and cots were soggy with dew. We visited the porta-potties, I fueled up on Starbucks-donated coffee, and we joined the ant-like participants efficiently dismantling the encampment and cleaning up. We were ready to go home by 6:30. Ready for soccer pictures, playdates, birthday and dinner parties.
Many of us wonder how we should respond to people who are homeless among us, how we can help. We have friends who make sandwiches for the man who camps at the intersection at the bottom of the hill; we have friends who regularly volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. Our neighbor has made ministering to the homeless and impoverished her mission. One small step is to treat our fellow citizens with the dignity we all deserve.
Here's a video with some suggestions--and perhaps you'll join our team for Sleepless next year...!