Mike Molter has participated in Sleep Out Saturday for four consecutive years to raise money for homeless individuals and families in DuPage County. Each year, his sleeping accommodations get more lavish.
"This year it’s a bit extravagant,” says the senior at Streamwood High School. “It’s a big, four-box apartment.”
The 17-year-old participates in the annual county-wide event each year with his youth group at . For the first time, his brother, Kevin, participated, too. Despite his sense of humor about his accommodations—a spacious structure, indeed, including plexiglass windows—Molter turns serious when he starts talking about the event. It's the primary fund-raiser for Bridge Communities, a nonprofit transitional housing program based in Glen Ellyn.
“Sleep Out Saturday has always been a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes,” Molter says. “You not only have to sleep out in a box in the cold November night, but the next morning you have to wake up, go to church and try to function like a normal person. That’s a really big part of the experience right there.”
Molter’s pastor, Rev. Jeanne Murawski, says she challenged all 23 youth who slept out on Saturday to come to church the next morning.
“If people have lost their homes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost their jobs,” Murawski says. “So having slept outside, how might you present yourself the next morning? How will you make it through your day given the way you’ve had to spend your night?”
Ali Marquess, a junior at York High School, also slept out on the front lawn of St. Peter’s.
“I didn’t get the memo that we were allowed to bring a toothbrush,” Marquess says, laughing. “I woke up feeling really sore, really grungy. I woke up a couple times overnight, and it was strikingly cold.”
Still, Marquess realizes that the 40-degree weather she experienced was at least dry, and a lot warmer than it can get during cold, Chicago winters.
“It opened my perspective to people who actually sleep outside in December and January,” she says.
Homeless Families on the Rise
Sleep Out Saturday has raised more than $500,000 for Bridge Communities since its inception eight years ago. This year’s Nov. 5 event was projected to raise $150,000 through sponsorship donations and text contributions.
Adults and kids slept outside at about 75 outdoor Sleep Out sites all over DuPage County. The other Elmhurst site was .
More than 1,200 participants gathered at Bridge Community’s parking lot in downtown Glen Ellyn for a rally on Saturday evening, emceed by Rob Stafford from NBC5.
Joyce Hothan, executive director of Bridge Communities, says the organization has been serving more than 100 families a year in their transitional housing and shared-equity home ownership programs. For 23 years, Bridge has offered life-skills mentoring, an auto program, financial counseling and employment training.
Hothan says the demographic of people seeking assistance is changing. With the rise in home foreclosures, more families are coming for help. Last year, DuPage County saw a 20 precent increase in foreclosures and ranked nine out of 102 counties in the number of foreclosures.
“We’re seeing people who were traditionally in the middle class who have never needed help before now knocking on our door,” Hothan says. “It’s very difficult for someone who hasn’t necessarily had to live on the edge before.”
Hothan adds that the economic downturn has created more need than ever.
“We used to see people who were working poor,” she says. “Now we have people who have lost jobs across all sectors. It takes longer to find jobs, or now people need more education and training for jobs that didn’t require as much as before. Or they’re making an average $2 less (an hour) than we saw with the same job several years ago. It makes life all that more difficult.”
As much as Sleep Out Saturday is about raising funds, Hothan says the visibility of groups sleeping outside in tents where people see them can raise awareness and empathy and hopefully spur more people to want to make a change.
“In general, I think a lot of people have a sense that the chronic population is the single individual. But truly, that’s not the majority of people right now who are experiencing homelessness. Families are the fastest growing segment in homeless population.”
Kids Making a Difference
Hothan says the many young people taking part in Sleep Out Saturday, such as the nearly 60 youth from Elmhurst, are instrumental in making a change for the future.
“Experiencing that vulnerability of a mom, knowing she has a responsibility for her children, is really something that’s moving for people,” Hothan says. “The youth come to realize that the children that come (to Bridge) mainly with the moms can well be their classmates. No child in the classroom is going to say, ‘I’m homeless.’ They’re going to work toward hiding that the best they can.”
At First United Methodist Church, Director of Youth Ministry Lisa Rogers says after taking part in the event year after year, the kids are starting to grasp the concept of homelessness, putting aside common stereotypes.
After showing an introductory video to her youth group a few weeks ago, Rogers asked the students to complete this sentence: A homeless person is …
One girl’s hand shot up, and Rogers called on her.
“A homeless person is … homeless.” she said.
“Bingo,” responded Rogers.
“That was the point I wanted to work up to,” she says. “But they already know that a homeless person is nothing more than a person without a home. That’s really the awareness part you want them to get—so they don’t look at homeless people as dirty, smelly people that are drug addicts. Well, they could be, but then so could your neighbor that’s got gazillions of dollars. It’s just a person who doesn’t have a residence. They get that. I think they really get that.”
The day after Sleep Out Saturday, Ali Marquess admits she’s a bit more tired than usual, and she’s feeling a bit sore. A nap sounds tempting, but Marquess has to stay awake while she babysits her nephew.
“Besides,” she says, “I have too much homework to do.”
“My perspective really changed,” she says. “There are little kids that have to do what I did through all weather, and they can’t do anything about it. I will enjoy my bed, but I will be thinking of those who don’t have one.
“And the next opportunity that comes by to donate to someone, I definitely will.”