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Lesson in homelessness: You can't tell who needs help by looking

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Box City

Millikin's Box City 

It’s hard to tell who’s who in Box City, even after the sun comes up the next day.

Bundled up against the cold and emerging from nondescript cardboard shelters, citizens of this annual homelessness experience at Millikin University are too exhausted to display any of the behaviors that distinguish one human being from another.

By the same token, the thin line that often separates the housed from the homeless was a recurring theme two weekends ago.

The Rev. Stacey Brohard, executive director of the Good Samaritan Inn, told the group they likely didn’t know even the situations of the people standing with them on the Miller Quad that Friday night.

“One medical bill, one injury at work, one broken relationship; all can cause homelessness,” he said. “Those are the stories we have in our dining room every day. How do you put a face on homelessness? Look in the mirror, it could be you.”

Millikin graduate Derekah Kingery, on staff for the campus Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, said if she were homeless, she would think about showering at the Decatur Indoor Sports Center rather than the Oasis Day Center so no one would know her situation. “I would want to just look like someone who came to work out,” she said.

Jeff Mueller, director of men's services at the Salvation Army, recalls that when he was living in the army's shelter, he and three friends would save up their coins and go to the Downtown Cafe for coffee once or twice a week and so they could be like everybody else.

Then George Rushing II, a senior vocal music education major at Millikin, asked how to tell of a homeless person asking for money is legit and said he believes many panhandlers are "faking it."

To address that uncertainty, Mueller said he is distributing 250 bags packed with snacks and sample-size personal hygiene products for people who tour the Salvation Army to put in their cars and give out instead of cash.

But Darsonya Switzer, housing program director of Homeward Bound, offered another point of view.

"You can't tell by looking, and my response is, 'So what?'" she said. "I have done this work for 20-plus years, and I am not going to make that judgment. I can live with helping you, whether you needed the help or not."

Malik Shabazz, a junior communication major at Millikin, said something similar while wrapped in a quilt he'd burned a hole in the night before after getting it too close to a burn barrel.

"It sucks that we can't seem to get it unless we're in it," he said. "We need to wake up and realize that this could be any one of us, that this could happen to anybody, and be humane, man.

"I cough like you cough; I bleed like you bleed; and at the end of the day, we're all in this together."

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