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Inside the Box: Homelessness experienced up close, personal

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DECATUR – Fighting a cold, Kaylee Smith found that thinking about her Decatur apartment was about all that got her through a frigid night outside.

“I have a bed that I can go home to and sleep,” she said.

Smith, 21, a native of Macon and a senior human services major at Millikin University, was among about 50 people who participated in Decatur's annual Box City on Friday night and Saturday morning to kick off National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week today.

The event unfolded on Millikin's Miller Quad, where soup and sandwiches were served by the Good Samaritan Inn, a makeshift village sprang up on the nearby grass and its inhabitants hunkered down for the night.

The next day, survivors left nothing behind but footprints in the frost before making their way along West Main Street toward the rising sun and breakfast with men staying at the Salvation Army's shelter because they are homeless.

“We have a story to tell when we go back to school,” said Nathan Outlaw, 14, a member of Decatur's First United Methodist Church. “How bad it is to be outside all day and all night.”

That's the point made by organizers of Box City, members of the Macon County Homeless Council Continuum of Care.

Darsonya Switzer, chairwoman of the the council's advisory committee and program director for Homeward Bound, told participants Friday they needed to take the experience they were about to have and multiply it.

“Tonight will be fun for you, but think about the people in this community who have to do this every single night,” Switzer said.

Residents of this year's Box City included youth from New Vision Church of God, as well as students from Millikin University, but a few awoke Saturday to discover their “roommates” had abandoned their cardboard shelters, either to sleep by one of the burn barrels provided by D&O Properties or go home altogether.

Jasharra Clark, a sophomore human services major from Lombard, was one such individual, who started out the night in a cardboard structure large enough for her and seven other Millikin students but woke up to find she and Bemajedareki Williams Jr., a junior communications major from Decatur, were the only ones left.

“My feet feel like ice,” Clark said.

Temperatures that dipped below freezing were not the only cold, hard facts participants were forced to confront.

Friday night Denise Jones, a homeless case manager for Homeward Bound, introduced them to Dove Inc. clients who were previously homeless, a man because of identity theft and a woman because of domestic violence.

On Saturday, they met Steven Taylor, 49, and Josh Benton, 43, who like the other Salvation Army shelter residents in attendance held up cardboard signs for visitors to see when they first came into the army's community center.

Benton's sign read, “I am alone,” and he expressed appreciation for Israel Caballero, children's pastor at New Vision Church of God, who made a point of telling him he is not alone.

“I pushed everybody away that tried to help me,” Benton said. “Stay away from drugs and alcohol, because they will bring you down.”

Mary Garrison, associate professor of social work at Millikin, got participants to think more deeply about what they'd experienced sleeping outside. Jared Bohland, men's minister at New Vision, also reminded them how much they had been given to get through the night.

“When you think about what we were provided that normally you would have to find before trying to get some sleep and stay warm, you can see why homeless people get so exhausted,” Bohland said. “It takes everything they have just to survive.”

Caballero, who brought along his 9-year-old son Jeremiah, said he felt motivated to keep the burn barrels supplied with wood.

“The fact that everyone was tossing and turning was one thing, but the cold was a brutal thing,” he said.

Waylan Stevens, a junior marketing major at Millikin from Defiance, Ariz., said an important lesson for him was that anyone can become homeless.

“It can be a series of unfortunate events or just one,” Stevens said. “It was eye-opening.”


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