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Teens sleep outside to see homelessness firsthand
More than 40 put together cardboard shelters
Diego Esqueda, left, 10, builds a makeshift shelter out of cardboard Friday with brother Javier, 15, at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville. Members of the youth group spent the night in cardboard boxes in order to understand what it means to be homeless. They also collected donations of food and clothing to be distributed to those in need. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

More than 40 young people abandoned the comfort of their beds Friday night to sleep outside St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville.

The students taped together cardboard boxes to make a shelter, which they filled with sleeping bags.

Andy McRoberts, youth director at the church, said the thought behind the “cardboard city” was to give students a taste of what life is like for the local homeless population.

“Most of the kids come from working families, and hopefully this will broaden their horizons,” McRoberts said. “They’ll know life after their mother and father and see that they have to work for food and clothing.”

The students arrived at 7 p.m. to assemble the encampment and were dressed in extra layers of clothing. The forecast Friday night called for temperatures to drop into the low 30s.

“I was nervous when I heard about that,” 15-year-old Amanda Torres said. “I brought two extra pairs of sweatpants, a hoodie (sweatshirt) and a jacket.”

The young people were given several breaks from the cold weather, however, as they rotated inside the church for a prayer service. Organizers also transformed a section of the church into a soup kitchen to provide the young people with a couple of late night meals.

“Nights like this, police will pick people up and take them to a homeless shelter where they can get some food,” McRoberts said.

“We wanted to make this like Good News at Noon,” he added, of the local shelter that provides daily meals to the homeless.

To give students an idea of the challenge, McRoberts said many of the young people watched films related to homelessness before the event. They also studied the type of clothing to wear and the effects of cold weather.

“There’s safety as well,” McRoberts said, adding that the students rotated in and out of the building to keep warm. The event also was supervised by parents and organizers.

Cindy Villatoro, 14, said she had never tried sleeping outside, not even camping, and she was prepared for an eye-opening night.

“I wanted to experience what it is truly like to be homeless, because none of us actually know how it is to be without food or without shelter,” she said. “We take everything for granted.”

In addition to being outside for the night, the teens also held handmade signs with phrases like “If you were in my shoes” and “Make a difference” to help spread awareness about the issue.

Winter clothing also was collected to be distributed to the John Paul 2 Centre and canned food for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, both of which help those in need in Hall County.

McRoberts said he hopes the experience is a meaningful one, and that it will instill a sense of charity in the teens.

“We want to give kids a sense for what it is to help other people and show them a church is not a building, not bricks or mortar, it’s a living thing,” he said. “We are the church and the church is about helping people in need. Once we get the food and clothing, tomorrow we’ll have changed someone’s life. We’ll have changed someone’s Christmas.”

On any given night, an estimated 18,000 people in Georgia have no place to call home and are residing in homeless shelters or other temporary places, according to Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness.