SOUTH WINDSOR – About 80 high school students from nine schools and parishes learned firsthand what it means to be homeless, at least for one night, when they slept outside in Cardboard Box City on the grounds of St. Francis of Assisi Church Nov. 21-22.
Maryellen Brennan, youth minister for the parish, said the event is held every two years and raises participants’ awareness of the plight of 578,424 Americans – including 2,488 Connecticut residents – for whom homelessness is a reality for more than one night a year. (Numbers are from the annual Point in Time census of homeless persons as of January 2014 and published this October by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community Planning and Development.)
“The [participants] arrive at the church between 5 and 7 [p.m.] to set up, so they pick the boxes up and they duct tape them,” Mrs. Brennan said. “They all get the same standard-size moving box,” she said.
The boxes that made up Cardboard Box City were donated by Siracusa Moving and Storage of New Britain.
About 15 chaperones and parents accompanied the students during the sleep-out on a night that saw temperatures plummet to 15 degrees. Only a few sought refuge inside the church hall, Mrs. Brennan said.
Participants hailed from South Windsor High School; the Torrington Cluster of Roman Catholic Parishes (St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter, Sacred Heart and St. Mary); St. Rita Parish, Hamden; St. Margaret Mary and St. Francis of Assisi, South Windsor; St. Mary, Simsbury; and St. Bridget, Manchester.
On the Saturday morning after sleeping in the cold, participants performed community service, one group raking leaves and another group collecting nonperishable food items to distribute to local food pantries. Mrs. Brennan reported that more than $2,000 and 150 canned items were collected.
Participants also heard talks by workers from local shelters about programs that fight homelessness. One speaker was Charles Brennan, kitchen supervisor and transitional living program supervisor at South Park Inn and Shelter, Hartford. He is also the husband of Maryellen Brennan.
“We talk about certain programs that we run and the reasons why we run them,” Mr. Brennan said. One such program is an exercise in applying for social programs such as food stamps. “We go through a whole program with them and some of them get frustrated with us, and we say, ‘This is what the homeless go through every day.’”
Father Christopher M. Tiano, pastor of St. Francis Parish, said shortly before the event began, “I just think it’s great that kids learn more about homelessness and learn about the poverty in our area, and it also has a positive effect because we do raise some money and we collect a lot of food and materials for our shelters around here.”
He added, “It’s the idea of exposing kids to what life is like for so many people out there and understanding the sense of despair and concern that people feel. ... At least they’ll have a different appreciation of what life is like for people and hopefully inspiring them to create a world that doesn’t have homelessness in it.”
Shawnee Baldwin, youth ministry coordinator at the Office of Religious Education and Evangelization, conducted an exercise called Hunger 101 on Nov. 21 at the church. “It’s a simulated experience of being poor,” she said. “They have this activity where they become somebody else for 40-ish minutes and they have to obtain a nutritious meal for their family.” They realize that they may be limited to spending $1 or $2 a day on food, so they try to supplement their income by obtaining food from a pantry or assistance from government programs like SNAP.
In January, participants of Cardboard Box City will prepare and serve meals to the homeless at South Park and at Immaculate Conception Shelter, also in Hartford.
Cardboard Box City began in 2007 and occurred four years in a row before it was changed to a biennial event so as not to conflict with the National Catholic Youth Conference, which occurs in odd-numbered years and which youth from St. Francis also attend, Mrs. Brennan said.
The first Cardboard Box City at St. Francis attracted 11 people, Mrs. Brennan said. It has grown steadily over the years.
“I’ve had a lot of kids who have used [the experience] on applications for college,” Mrs. Brennan said.