Photo courtesy of John Anderson
By Gina Olson
Throughout the world, many families and individuals live their lives without a home. In the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on a given night in January 2014 “216,261 people were homeless in 67,613 families, representing 37 percent of all homeless people.”
On November 7, between 60 and 70 Roanoke College students chose to sleep in cardboard boxes on the Back Quad for an event called Shack Attack. The event gave each student an opportunity to better understand what homeless people experience in their daily lives.
In addition to the experience, each participant donated $25 to Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization with a focus on “bring[ing] people together to build homes, communities and hope”.
The event raised well over $1,500, which will go to the local branch of Habitat for Humanity.
Though participants could decorate their boxes, play card games, and socialize while roasting marshmallows over a fire, Andrew Dittmar, the student coordinator of volunteers for R-house with the Center of Civic Engagement, said that the focus was on trying to experience homelessness more than any other aspect of the event.
“Homelessness is a pervasive problem all about the country,” said Dittmar.
During the event, the weather seemed cooler than any other night of this year, just as it has in the past, according to Dittmar. Though the weather, and other reasons, prevented some students from staying for the whole night, even those who left early took a lot away from the experience.
Madison Howard, a freshman involved with Alpha Phi Omega (a community service-based fraternity), the Student Government Association, and other organizations, learned about the event from Dittmar and decided to participate because of her passion for volunteer work.
Howard has had previous experience with helping provide for the homeless. As part of Plunge, a pre-orientation program in Washington, D.C., she worked at various sites and helped prepare dinner for homeless people.
Howard had to leave Shack Attack early, but it amazed her that neither she nor her friend could stay the whole night when homelessness is a truth for many Americans.
“It definitely makes you think about what it’s like to be unhoused in America,” Howard said, “They shouldn’t have to live like this…it was so cold.”
Most striking for Howard was the realization that “these people don’t have time to plan”, while those who participated in Shack Attack had time to pick teams for the event and time to purchase boxes and blankets.
Sarah Neuren, a junior, also participated in Shack Attack. Like Howard, she enjoys volunteering. She first became involved with Habitat for Humanity as a junior in high school, and since then has participated in R-house, activities over the fall and spring breaks, and Trick or Treat for Change.
She described the experience as “eye-opening”, because it allowed participants to “get to feel what [the homeless are] feeling and at least try to understand what they’re feeling every day.”
It also reminded Neuren that it is important “not to take things for granted.”
To students who may want to participate in a future Shack Attack, Dittmar stressed the importance of being willing to try things, and said, “It’s a challenge. It asks you to put yourself in a [different] frame of mind…that’s a big thing…it makes you think.”
For more information about Habitat for Humanity, please visit habitat.org.