DECATUR — Though Michaela Wolfman has spent the night outside in frigid conditions before, she's learned that prior experience still doesn't prepare someone for the brutal experience she was about to face again Friday evening.
“Things become a lot more real when you're in this situation,” said Wolfman, a senior studying human services at Millikin University. “You think, 'Yeah, I could spend a night in the cold, I could spend a week in the cold, with enough blankets it'll be fine.' But last year it was still above 20 degrees and it was rough.”
Millikin's Miller Quad transformed into “Box City” Friday night, where students and community members gathered to simulate what it would be like to be homeless for the night. The temperature began just above freezing as each participant set up his or her own box for the night, with the cold steadily building as the night progressed. The only sources of warmth were a couple of fire barrels. The National Weather Service at Lincoln said the low temperature overnight would be 24 degrees.
The night marked the 10th year that the university has offered the opportunity to experience a night as a homeless person. Friday's event was hosted by Professor Mary Garrison, the university's Human Service Connection and Macon County Continuum of Care. Garrison, who teaches social work, participates each year with the group.
Other "hands-on" learning experiences that she designs, like the SNAP Hunger Challenge to have students feed themselves for $4.47 per day, helps her students see from the perspective of clients they would be serving as a social worker.
Students on Friday heard from a speaker who has a personal experience with homelessness. They ate dinner of chicken rice, tomato soup and sandwiches provided by The Good Samaritan Inn. The group also planned to eat lunch at Good Samaritan on Saturday, where they will walk after the night of sleeping outside.
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“I watch them be frustrated, they're extremely tired,” Garrison recalled from last year's group. “But they're still really engaged, they really walk away with a different perspective. It's not fun and games, it's about really trying to connect and get a very small perspective of what someone truly might be experiencing.”
Garrison helps organize an annual “Point-in-Time” survey in Macon County at the start of every year, helping calculate the approximate homeless population. According to survey data, the homeless population was 130 in 2017, increasing to 161 in 2018.
The most recent poll conducted January shows the homeless population continues to increase, Garrison said. Raising awareness becomes even more crucial as the need continues to increase.
“It puts a real understanding of what real homeless people are going through,” said Garrison. “I do see students really being able to have a true and accurate understanding of what homelessness is and how they might be able to respond and help someone, even just as a human being.”
Among agencies with programs to help the population is Dove Inc. Darsonya Switzer, program director of the organization's Homeward Bound program, took part in Friday night's simulation alongside her staff.
Participating in Box City gives a perspective of what millions of people experience every night, said Switzer.
“I just want to make sure people are fully aware,” she said, “knowing that we are fully engaged in the fight to end homelessness in Decatur and Macon County."
Contact Garrett Karsten at (217) 421-6949. Follow him on Twitter: @GarrettKarsten