In the five years that Maya Bowen has participated in the Youth Sleepout for the Homeless hosted by Mechanicsburg First United Methodist Church, she’s learned to take sleeping outside for a night in November’s volatile chilled weather into perspective.
“It’s just for one night that we have to do this. Some people have to do this every day,” said Bowen, 17, a Cumberland Valley High School senior who lives in Mechanicsburg. “We’re in boxes with blankets, but it’s really hard to stay warm. One night it even snowed a little bit, other times it’s been windy.”
The 29th annual Sleepout fundraiser kicked off Friday afternoon outside the Mechanicsburg church at 135 W. Simpson St. in the borough. Around 40 youths from area church groups, including Bowen, voluntarily signed up to experience homelessness firsthand by sleeping outside Friday night into Saturday morning (when temperatures were expected to drop into the 20s) in the church parking lot. Also participating are youth groups and adult volunteers/leaders from Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ Church and Camp Hill United Methodist Church.
“They sign up by choice. It’s fun for them to be with their friends while helping others,” said Lisa Aronson, Mechanicsburg United First Methodist’s youth pastor. “I’m always impressed that as an event, it’s had the success that it’s had. It’s not one of the fun events that’s advertised with all the bells and whistles, but there’s always been kids willing to sign up for it.”
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Bowen said earlier this week that “a bunch of my friends” were set to join her Friday, as well as her parents, John and Janice Bowen of Mechanicsburg. “It’s cool and valuable to be a part of this. It’s cool to be able to make others in the community aware of homelessness. There’s always been a stigma around it and it’s not talked about as much as it should be,” she said.
After an evening of soliciting public donations along Simpson Street and a soup-kitchen meal inside, participants in grades 6-12 spent the night huddled in cardboard boxes with blankets. Several adult volunteers stayed on hand to keep watch in rotating shifts, pausing for occasional respites of warmth over lit burn barrels onsite.
Mechanicsburg First United Methodist’s youth ministries organizes the yearly event not only to raise funds for programs benefiting the homeless, but also to raise public awareness about the issue, Aronson said. Youths there also participate in rotating half-hour classes focusing on the elements behind homelessness.
“We try to combat some of the myths around homeless, like maybe they got that way because they’re lazy or choosing not to work. To put it into perspective, homelessness is often caused by circumstances beyond their control, such as a job loss or illness,” said Aronson, who has been involved with the church’s sleepout since 2010.
Aronson said earlier this week that she expected this year’s event to surpass a standing goal of $5,000, roughly the same amount collected in other years through in-person and online donations. Proceeds benefit local agencies aiding the homeless, including Family Promise, New Hope Ministries and Bethesda Mission. Although online donations will continue to be accepted year-round at GoFundMe.com or Mechanicsburg First United Methodist’s website, https://fumchurch.com, Aronson said organizers prefer to receive funds within a two-week time frame of the event to enable timely funding for agency beneficiaries.
Homelessnesss sits closer to home across the region than some may think. This week, Mechanicsburg Area School District tallied 23 homeless students among its total enrollment of 4,367, district business administrator Greg Longwell said.
On Thursday, Cumberland Valley School District communications specialist Tracy Panzer reported approximately 100 homeless children in the district, which includes current CV students and their siblings not yet of school age.
“It’s important to note that number may fluctuate daily,” Panzer said.
In January 2020, an annual Point in Time State of People Homeless on a Given Night census in Pennsylvania determined that a total of 13,375 people qualified as homeless throughout the state, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Homeless people don’t always sleep in a box. It can also be on someone’s couch, but it involves something that can be taken away quickly,” Aronson said.
The annual sleepout has always been scheduled near Thanksgiving, a time when many pause to count their blessings. By participating in each year’s event, “Students come to realize that being grateful is not an attitude surrounding excess, but is one that can be directed toward the basic needs in life,” Aronson said.