Boxed in: Youth event raises awareness for homelessness in community

By Liz Applegate
October 4, 2010
PLANO, Texas—Concerned over an increase in homelessness across the U.S., the youth of one United Methodist church decided to bring “the homeless” to their front lawn to raise awareness within their community.Youth Box City was hosted Sept. 24 at First United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, and despite the threat of thunderstorms, 55 youth and 10 adult chaperones participated.

Hand-painted signs with statistics on homelessness lined a busy intersection near the church to call attention to the youths’ efforts. Commuters slowed to read the signs and watch the youth assemble their shelters for the evening, made out of large appliance boxes and plastic garbage bags.

A truck was on hand to take donations for the Samaritan Inn, the only homeless facility in Collin County where the church is located.

“I think it’s great the youth are doing something like this,” said one area resident. “You think of youth as playing their music too loud or just out to have fun. They are doing something good for the community and that’s a good thing.”

A growing need

Recently the topic of homelessness has prompted some debate in Plano. The Samaritan Inn facility in McKinney, just north of Plano, had proposed building a multi-family complex for the homeless in Plano.

But opposition from concerned residents and business owners, who feared the facility would lower residential property values and prompt a spike in the crime rate, caused the City of Plano to table the discussion and the Inn to eventually pull its proposal.

Lynn Sipiora, executive director of the Samaritan Inn, says that while she was very disappointed by the outcome, she hopes events such as Box City will help the Plano community understand the need for more shelters, not just in North Texas but across the country.

“People have a stereotype of a homeless person—a dirty person under a bridge with a sign,” Ms. Sipiora said. “And yes, that can be accurate, but what we typically see [at the Samaritan Inn] are middle-class people who have been affected by long-term unemployment.”

There have been times, she said, when every head of household living in the shelter had a college degree. “They are people like you and me,” she said. “That is so important to understand.”

It’s difficult for a person to find a job or get counseling for substance abuse until they know where they are going to sleep at night, Ms. Sipiora said. “It’s the basics that a shelter can provide. And with the right kind of program, a shelter can help that person or family get back on their feet.”

The Samaritan Inn is a transitional housing facility that helps its residents find permanent housing and develop life skills. Residents must adhere to strict guidelines to participate in the Inn’s program, which can house 133 residents at one time with separate quarters for men, women and families.

Many weeks, people seeking help at the Inn are referred to other facilities because of the lack of room. In 2009, the Inn served 660 residents. It boasts a 72-percent graduation rate from the facility, meaning the former resident has an income and affordable housing.

Philanthropy needs to be modeled to children before a problem such as homelessness can be solved through community efforts, Ms. Sipiora said.

“I’m excited that homelessness is being brought to the attention of the youth,” she said. “They have to understand that not everyone lives and has the benefits that we do. It is great to have the youth involved. It’s not just a great opportunity to help but also to feel blessed.”

Humbling experience

Youth Box City is just the beginning of ways First UMC is reaching out to those in need in the community. The church is a member of the Interfaith Housing Network, which temporarily houses families.

The church also will be a part of Family Promise in Collin County, to help shelter families in transitional housing situations. First Church Plano will be one of nine participating churches when the program launches.

The church also participates in Habit for Humanity home-building projects and “Amigos Days,” where members help with home repairs for lower-income residents of Dallas.

Later this year, the youth will also be participating in “Love Where You Live,” a citywide program that will help revitalize lower-income neighborhoods.

“We didn’t want to just talk about the homeless as in a city far away, and we don’t just want to travel to other places to help with mission work,” says John Cravens, First Church Plano’s youth minister.

“It’s important they remember that the homeless family could be a family they know, kids they go to school with. And it’s good for them to take part in helping the community as well as be a part of the growing identity within the church.”

Though Youth Box City resembled a typical youth lock-in at times, with the youth ranging from 6th to 12th grade, the kids were rounded up at midnight and watched taped interviews of Samaritan Inn graduates as well as interviews with homeless teens. The term “houseless” was used a lot of times and repeated in the interviews, opening the eyes of the youth as they realized that a shelter or a box could be a “home”—but what the homeless don’t have is an actual house to live in.

No complaints

Besides sleeping in a box, one main difference from a church lock-in event was that the youth were not permitted to bring along cell phones or other electronic devices.

“Some kids would have preferred no shelter or food, compared to no cell phones,” joked Mr. Cravens. “But the kids actually sat and talked for hours without distraction, and added the benefit of deeper fellowship.”

Mr. Cravens said he was very proud of the youth who participated and took it to so seriously. “They really embraced the experience and took ownership in the mission project,” he said.

Dillon Lawrence, 16, found the experience very humbling. “We only had a small taste of what being homeless feels like,” he said. “It really makes you think twice about what you have.”

The most humbling of the experience was not the lack of texting, remarked a 13-year-old; it was the rain that began around 4 a.m. In an instant, the box houses—some with added shutters and doorbells—were damaged.

Madison Pearson, 15, said she wanted the experience to be more than just an outdoor slumber party.

“I’m glad it rained,” she said, “so we could get a chance to see what some people actually have as their house.”

And though it was for just one evening, and the kids knew they had a comfortable bed waiting for them the next day, participants say they felt the reality of the experience throughout the event.

“We didn’t even really experience the real deal, but Box City was eye opening and unforgettable,” says Annie Bradshaw, 16, adding the event made her feel grateful for what she has.

“When it started raining, we didn’t run for cover right away. When it got hot in our boxes we didn’t complain. And when we ran out of food, we did without. In the beginning, we shaped our box city, but in the end it shaped us.”

Published originally at The United Methodist Reporter