Students gain memorable lesson in going homeless
Nikki Dicks of Chicago, an Oakton Community College student, talks about living in a shantytown created by the school's Habitat For Humanity chapter to build awareness about homelessness. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
OCC’s HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Oakton Community College’s Habitat For Humanity Club raised about $400 during its recent shantytown on the Des Plaines campus. Funds go to help the club perform important work including helping to build homes for the homeless. To make a donation, write a check to Oakton Community College and write “Habitat For Humanity” in the memo line and send to 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines, 60016.
Updated: January 14, 2013 6:10AM
One very cold night can equal the education of a lifetime.
Nearly 30 Oakton Community College students proved that point when they went homeless the night of Nov. 27, building and living in their own cardboard shanties on the Des Plaines campus. The exercise could hardly be considered an exact replica of the conditions that homeless people have to endure day after day, week after week.
For students though used to a warm bed at night and a hot meal on a cold November evening, the experience was eye-opening and the mission accomplished: The event raised awareness about homelessness.
“I don’t think it’s something that people who went through this forget,” said Sahil Pruthi, treasurer of Oakton’s Habitat For Humanity club, which sponsored the event. “It provided some insight into homelessness for everyone who was a part of it.”
That was the idea when Habitat For Humanity club advisor Marvin Bornschlegl, a part-time teacher and Morton Grove police sergeant, pushed forward with the idea last year. The first event was held on the Oakton campus and included an indoor “soup kitchen.” This second one did not include the soup kitchen because of a conflicting event inside the Des Plaines building; but it included a significant change from last year.
Unlike in 2011, the next day was a school day and not a holiday. Participants could not sleep off the experience the day after but had to feel the full effects of a miserable night.
“For people to function the next day is nearly impossible,” said student Ryan Alm. “The next day I could not function. I could not do homework. I could not concentrate in class. I was falling asleep. It was bad. And for people who have to do that on an everyday basis, no wonder they have trouble getting out of that situation.”
About a week after the school’s memorable shanty night, many of the participants gathered again in an Oakton classroom in Skokie to share their experiences and insights.
That included two women from Lake County’s Habitat For Humanity chapter, who lived in their homemade shanty Nov. 27.
“I’ve never slept in a cardboard box before,” said Stephanie Junca. “I didn’t sleep well at all. I kept waking up every half hour. Even though we had a lot of layers and it didn’t feel cold at all, I still couldn’t sleep.”
Her partner, Elizabeth Pierce, also of Lake County’s Habitat, called the experience one she will never forget.
Almost every aspect of the night of being homeless was designed as a learning experience, Bornschlegl said.
The wrestling room inside the Des Plaines building was set up as an emergency shelter in case of unbearable weather although it wasn’t used. Had students gone there, that would have been a learning experience in itself because homeless people are constantly mobile and move with their belongings so they are not taken.
Alm said people looked at him in a funny way as he was carrying his sleeping bag on the campus that night, a mirror to some extent of the stigma of being homeless.
Many participants came away with a new understanding of how easy it is to be homeless. That’s especially true in today’s economy where so many homes have been foreclosed on, emphasized representatives of Oakton’s Social and Corporate Responsibility Club, which also participated in the event.
It wasn’t long ago when student Brian York, who participated in Shantytown Nov. 27, was living in his car and not a home for real.
“Four years ago I had no home,” he said. “I was homeless. I made the shanty pretty well, and the truth is I slept better there than I did when I was sleeping in my car.”
Student Nikki Diks said that she had a better appreciation now of how easy it is for someone to be homeless.
Oakton’s aftermath discussion of the shanty experience proved almost as important as the shanty experience itself. That’s when students got to share their own perspectives and enlighten each other about a night they will not forget. One student from Mexico talked about the pervasiveness of homelessness in his own country, providing a different glimpse into what is a worldwide problem.
Oakton’s Habitat For Humanity members continue to address this global problem as best they can. The Oakton group have also helped build homes in Tennessee and Michigan. Another trip to help build a home in Michigan is being planned for early next year.