Outdoor 'sleepover' teaches students about homelessness

High school seniors got a lesson this weekend in what it's like to sleep outdoors under cardboard when it rains.

It didn't rain exactly. While taking part in a "sleepover" outside a local soup kitchen, some of the students were soaked when a garden irrigation system unexpectedly turned on at 3 in the morning.

Nevertheless, a point was made.

"The night changed my thoughts about the homeless," said 18-year-old Sunny Odogwu, a senior at St. Frances Academy who lives on Brentwood Avenue. "We learned that life is not fair.

The students' overnight stay, sponsored by Catholic Charities and Jobs Housing & Recovery Inc., was designed to help the young people better understand poverty and inspire them to advocate for the less fortunate.

Some 76 students spent Saturday night at Our Daily Bread Employment Center in the 700 block of the Fallsway — a stone's throw from the state penitentiary and a homeless shelter. During their 12-hour stay, the students served homeless guests a hot breakfast and heard their stories, and also listened to speakers describe what it is like to live on the streets.

As they got ready to return to their homes early Sunday morning, the students considered their own situations.

"I realized how spoiled I am," said Hannah Poole, a 17-year-old McDonogh School senior from Reisterstown. "We learned how many people these shelters have to turn away and how sad this is. There are just not enough beds for older women in the homeless community."

She said she was amazed by the shelter experience and impressed by those who work there.

"They cater to the homeless who want to turn their lives around," Poole said. "When it seems like there's no one else left who cares, the people at the shelters are there."

The organizers of Baltimore Sleep Out for the Homeless sent invitations to schools, which in turn sent students, chaperons and parents. It was a first-time effort — and one organizers said they hoped to repeat.

"It was overwhelmingly positive," said Meg Ducey, a development director at Jobs Housing & Recovery Inc., one of the event's sponsors. "The students were profoundly affected but also had a good time. They told me: 'Wow. This is an amazing experience.'"

Participating schools included Archbishop Spalding, Christo Rey Jesuit, Girls Empowerment Mission, Institute of Notre Dame, Loyola Blakefield, Maryvale Preparatory School, McDonogh School and Mount St. Joseph High School.

Jeremy Ambrose, an 18-year-old from Glen Burnie and a Mount St. Joseph's senior, won an award for building the "most creative" sleeping shelter. He credited his training as an Eagle Scout with his ability to pad walls with shredded cardboard.

While there was no rain and the temperatures hovered in the 40s, some of the male students were drenched by a landscaping irrigation system.

"I was not mad about the soaking. I think of my own fortunate situation. Every day is a good day for me," Ambrose said. "I don't have to be [woken] up and be soaked by the rain."

Continued Ambrose: "I am a kid who has everything. The homeless have close to nothing."

Ambrose said he has a job at a Giant grocery store near his home and sees homeless people sleeping near a B&A Boulevard overpass. He occasionally buys sodas and cookies and leaves them outdoors.

"They always disappear," he said.

The students heard case studies and then answered hypothetical questions about how they would pay for food and shelter and deal with what organizers called the "wild cards" of life.

"Before this, I could not imagine living without my cell phone or my car," said Philippe Ayres, a McDonogh senior from Ellicott City.

"After the night, I overcame stereotypes," Ayres continued. "Homeless people can be anyone. … I learned that you don't necessarily have to come from a bad background. Unfortunate events can lead you into homelessness. I also learned to appreciate what I have."

Before turning in under the stars — the boys in the garden and the girls on a basketball court — the students heard testimonies about the impact of homelessness on children and young adults, homelessness' effect on physical and mental health, and the relationship between substance abuse and homelessness, as well as the situation of prisoners reentering the community.

Ducey said the night "broke down stereotypes" for the students.

"A lot of people think all homeless are derelicts," she said. "The students left realizing just how fragile peoples' lives are in today's economy."


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