When we first went outside it was a mildly warm November night, and most of us thought the temperature wasn’t bad. However, around 1 a.m. the cold began setting in. We came to the conclusion that huddling together to stay warm was our best option. An hour passed and sleep won out over the cold for most students. I stayed awake, shivering and exhausted.
Around 3 a.m. the rest of us passed out, only to be awoken a few hours later by the soft pitter-patter of raindrops on our sleeping bags and boxes. We were tempted to run indoors, but realized that the homeless do not have that option, so we endured the rain until morning. This is what the Homelessness Awareness Club decided to endure for one night to raise consciousness about homeless people and money for the Covenant House shelter.
Covenant House of New Jersey is a shelter in Newark that provides living space, food, education and many other services to at-risk and homeless youth. The students in the homeless club at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J., wanted to help this organization, but we didn’t know how. Nearly 47,000 homeless youth were counted on a single night in the United States, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. The report is published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
After talking to Covenant House outreach manager Marcel Quinones, we decided to try a different form of fundraising. He told the leaders of the club about a solidarity sleep-out. He explained that people sleep outdoors for one night to understand what it feels like to be homeless. Individuals would sponsor the students to raise money for the Covenant House. Our group decided that it would be an interesting and enlightening experience and our advisor, Rabbi Richard Kirsch, approved.
Sixteen volunteers stayed at school on Nov. 21, 2013. We each raised at least $100. We watched the film, “The Pursuit of Happyness” — a fantastic true story about a man and his family who were born into lower-class America and their struggle to overcome poverty. The movie showed that anything is possible with determination, sheer willpower and a little kindness.
When the movie ended, Rabbi Kirsch led three guests into the room. We sat in a circle and Marcel introduced two people: Sarah and Saijah. The girls told us their stories of how they became homeless and arrived at Covenant House. Thanks to Covenant House’s help they are in school — one about to graduate high school and the other in college with a substantial job. Each one of us sitting there listened closely to their moving stories and tried to internalize their messages.
After the meaningful discussion, we prepared ourselves for the long, cold night ahead. Students put on at least two layers of sweat pants, three shirts, one or two coats, gloves and a hat. We set up an indoor snack station with donated chips, pretzels, water and hot cocoa. Rabbi Kirsch reviewed the rules and introduced us to the security guard who would be watching over us to ensure our safety. After the briefing, we stepped outside and embarked on our journey.
At 11 p.m. we put our sleeping bags on the school’s tennis courts and brought out dozens of cardboard boxes. Some people used them as mats for sleeping, some to cover their heads. Some of the students even attempted to sleep inside them while others built forts.
We were roused at 6:45 a.m. after a wet and restless night. We gathered our supplies and moved indoors to have a hot cup of cocoa and snack. After we thawed, we shared our thoughts and what we learned from this experience. Some students said “they woke up and their teeth would not stop chattering.” Others told us that they “truly understood what those people feel like every day and night.” Sleeping outside for one night was intolerable, but the solidarity sleep-out was an eye-opening, worthwhile and meaningful experience. At the conclusion of the session, it was announced to us that we exceeded our fundraising goal and raised more than $2,000 for the Covenant House.
The sleep-out gave us a small taste of what hundreds of thousands go through each and every day and night — something most of us know little about. Without any preparation or true guidance, we were thrown into the raw elements and were told to endure a rough night. While I lay inside my fort of boxes, shivering and overcome with fatigue, I had time to examine certain aspects of my life that I don’t normally think about. I looked at all the small and simple things in my life that I typically take for granted, such as heat and clothing and the big, more important things, like food and shelter.
It made me realize how fortunate I am for all the things I have because there are thousands of people who do not even have the most basic necessity: a place to peacefully rest. I told my fellow club members that despite my agitation from harsh conditions and exhaustion, I felt motivated, because I realized this night wasn’t about me or my needs, it was about others and theirs.
Every morning and night since the sleep-out, especially now that the winter is here, I ponder how those men, women and children constantly endure the brutal, bitter cold. When the temperature outside reaches single digits, it relieves me to know that Covenant House is out there trying their best to get the homeless teens off the frigid streets and into heated shelters.