Elmhurst Churches Sleep Out so Others Don't Have to
Sleep Out Saturday raises money and awareness for homeless in DuPage County.
It is 7:30 on a Sunday morning, and youth from First United Methodist Church in Elmhurst have just come inside after spending all night sleeping on the church lawn in tents and boxes. Despite the extra hour afforded them because of daylight saving time, many of them slump on a couch, while others, still donning hats and scarves, sit quietly, warming their hands around cups of hot cocoa. One girl dramatically sprawls herself on the floor in an exhausted heap.
"Hey, you're a fire hazard," says Youth Director Lisa Rogers, playfully nudging the girl's leg with her toe. "You can lay here, but just know that you might get trampled in case of a fire."
Three Elmhurst churches took part in Sleep Out Saturday Nov. 6, an annual fund-raiser sponsored by Bridge Communities in Glen Ellyn, DuPage County's oldest and largest provider of transitional housing for homeless families. The event, in its seventh year, has raised more than a half-million dollars for Bridge Communities, which offers mentoring, career coaching and counseling, job training, tutoring and transportation for homeless families. First United Methodist, St. Peter's United Church of Christ and Christ United Methodist were part of 60 groups across the county who slept out to feel first-hand what it's like not to have a roof overhead at night.
That reality is true for more and more in DuPage, despite the county having the second highest median income in the Chicago area and one of the highest in the state. Unemployment has doubled in DuPage since December 2008; a one-night survey conducted in January 2009 found there were nearly 700 homeless adults and children. The median age of a homeless person in the county is 8 years old.
Rallying Around the Homeless
Just as the sun was setting, the "sleepers" set up their camp: While most had tents, some used cardboard boxes. Rev. Jeanne Murawski, associate pastor at St. Peter's UCC, pointed to her car parked in the church parking lot. "That's where I'll be sleeping," she said.
Over at Christ United Methodist, the sleepers set up a fire pit surrounded by chairs as the centerpiece for their town of tents. As soon as the setup was complete, the groups headed over to Bridge Communities in Glen Ellyn for the outdoor kick-off rally for Sleep Out Saturday.
The crowd at the rally, mostly teens, was initially loud and raucous. Local band Flipside covered familiar rock tunes and had participants singing and clapping along. Beach balls were buoyed up by the crowd. But when Joyce Hothan, executive director of Bridge Communities, took the stage, she reminded everyone the reason for the gathering.
"All of us at Bridge are getting lots and lots of phone calls from families here in DuPage who are looking for housing," she said. "These people are sitting next to you in school and are the people who work with you every day. These are the homeless—the hidden homeless—in DuPage."
A video projected onto large screens at the rally told the story of one family, Belinda and her two sons, Justyn and Jordyn, who are no longer homeless because of the assistance they received at Bridge Communities. Justyn and Jordyn, now both young men, recounted the pain and embarrassment of living in their car and not wanting their friends at school to realize they were homeless. As the strains of Daughtry's hit "Home" faded from the background of the video, the emcee of the evening, DJ Koz from 101.9 FM, announced surprise guests: Belinda, Justyn and Jordyn—in person.
To thunderous applause, the family took the stage to thank the participants for supporting Bridge Communities. Belinda, overcome with emotion, wiped tears from her eyes.
"Something that could've made us statistics made us feel like celebrities tonight, thanks to you guys," she told the crowd.
Justyn smiled, looking at his mother. "The strongest woman alive is standing on my right side right now."
Dinner or No Dinner
Back in Elmhurst after the rally, the group from First United Methodist had work to do before sleeping. In an activity devised by Rogers, the youth formed "families" of six and had to go to the adult leaders and beg for money. The leaders, armed with envelopes of cash, could choose several responses to the begging.
"We could ignore them," explained adult leader Shannon Schroeder, "or we could say, 'No, you're probably going to spend the money on drugs and alcohol,' or say, 'Why don't you have a job?' Or we could give them money."
Armed with the meager cash they were able to earn from begging, the group walked to the nearby Jewel to go about the task of buying sustaining foods for their "families."
"They couldn't buy sweets," Schroeder said. "I just kind of stood back and let it all unfold."
Schroeder listened as the kids worked out the logistics. Take and bake pizza wasn't an option because the group didn't have an oven; cream cheese on crackers looked good, until one girl asked how they would spread the cream cheese without any utensils. At one point, one student said, "Where do homeless people go to the bathroom?"
"It was fun to watch them shop," Rogers said. "Because I don't think they usually shop (at the grocery store).
"And if they do shop," added Schroeder, "they don't shop with a budget in mind."
Over at Christ United Methodist, member Barbara Richardson led her group in The Homeless Game, a board game similar to Life. Each player gets a card that explains life circumstances that could lead to homelessness: unemployment, unplanned pregnancy or maybe illness. As you wind your way around the game board, Richardson says you are met with circumstances that you must overcome.
"You might go to a church and you could find the church door closed, or you might find someone who can help you. Or you might get sick, so you go to the hospital."
Last year, as the group played the game, one player's luck ran out.
"Within the first 20 minutes of playing the game, one of the boys playing chose a card that said, 'You go to the hospital and die.' It was so shocking for everybody," Richardson said. "You know it theoretically, but it really hit home that if you don't have medical care, if you don't have a place you can go for help, if you don't have a warm bed to go to when you're recovering, if you are constantly not able to take care of your own physical needs because of your job or some other reason, you are more vulnerable."
Affordable housing is a topic near and dear to Richardson's heart. She is active with DuPage Housing Action Coalition, a collaborative effort of many housing organizations in DuPage, including Bridge Communities.
"The people who are on the front lines trying to help people in poverty have learned that, because of high cost of housing in DuPage county, it makes life more and more difficult for people at the low end," she said. "There has to be a concerted effort to change the availability of housing that is affordable. That means paying no more than 30 percent of your income on housing."
Back at First United Methodist, a group of girls talked about their experience sleeping out. The night was cold, but thankfully clear and dry. For Elizabeth Hagstrom, her first year sleeping out wasn't too bad, overall.
"We had our feet warmers and our hand warmers and we stuffed them in our sleeping bags and pillow cases," she said.
Her friend Michelle Wiese added, "It was really cool to know that what we were doing was for people who don't have what we have. I was pretty uncomfortable. Either I was really hot or really cold, or I needed to use the bathroom. So I feel really good to know that we're helping someone so they don't have to go through that."
"I love working with these kids," said Rogers, who is in her third year as youth director of the church at the corner of York Road and Church Street. "It makes me feel inspired. I look at these kids and think, these are the ones who are going to be making more Bridge Communities. Because that's what we need. We need lots of Bridge Communities."