Over 75 Blaine High School outdoor adventures seniors and staff members raised awareness of homelessness in Anoka County Oct. 24 during the sixth annual Box City event by sleeping outside in cardboard boxes overnight.
“In outdoor adventures we always challenge students to go outside their comfort zone and try new things to help them develop and become a better person,” said Larry Osmek, a Blaine High School science and outdoor adventures teacher. “This event was developed to have students think about and experience what many homeless people go through in Anoka County.”
During the event, students and staff members slept in boxes on the tennis courts at Blaine High School. They were only allowed to bring a sleeping bag, tarp, duct tape, a small pillow, multiple layers of clothing, a hat, gloves and water.
“This is life changing,” senior Jessica Berge said. “It really makes you think about how little some people have. We often think we’re less fortunate because we don’t have the latest clothes or phone, and we forget how little others have. It puts what’s important into perspective.”
“We had time to prepare for this, but many homeless people don’t get to and they just have to deal with a lot less than this,” added senior Kaitlynn Hoogervorst.
Prior to sleeping outside, the students listened to three speakers who discussed their experiences with homelessness: Andover Fire Chief Jerry Streich, HOPE 4 Youth volunteer engagement manager Monica Alley and Richard Bahr, Threshold to New Life co-founder and author of “Those People: The True Character of the Homeless.”
Streich spoke of how he became homeless when he was a student at Coon Rapids School. He said it occurred when his parents divorced and his mother became an alcoholic.
“There are a lot of kids, your age and younger, who don’t have a place to sleep tonight,” Streich told the students. “In fact on my way here I was in my squad, I saw a call to check up on six homeless people. I thought that was ironic that I’m en route to talk about my story and I saw this call. It’s real. ... Many of the kids your age who are homeless have no other choice.”
Osmek said many of his students fail to realize that people who are affected by homelessness are closer than they think, with 72 students at Blaine High School currently being homeless.
“Homelessness is a real issue, and it’s happening right here,” he said. “Kids hear about homelessness, but they really don’t stop and think about it. It’s good for these students to put themselves in another student’s shoes who may be homeless.”
“What you’re doing tonight is supporting a bigger purpose ... and I hope you have a great time learning about the challenges of your peers,” Streich said.
Alley spoke about becoming homeless at the age of 14 in California after being sent to foster care by her parents after reporting abuse she suffered from three individuals, including family member. While she was homeless, Alley became addicted to drugs, went hungry, was trafficked, kidnapped, sexually assaulted and ended up pregnant at 17, which caused her to break out of the cycle.
Alley, the volunteer engagement manager for HOPE 4 Youth, said she would have sought help earlier if it were available. HOPE 4 Youth is a nonprofit in Anoka County that provides pathways to end youth homelessness in the area.
“I picked myself up, but you know what, it would have been better if I had the resources that HOPE 4 Youth provides,” she told the students. “I hope by me sharing my story, you take the time to listen to someone else’s.”
Bahr spoke about the homeless individuals he works with at Threshold to New Life, a ministry that provides short-term relief to the homeless, and the reasons they became homeless. The reasons included safety, health, financial and job difficulties — many of which were beyond their control.
“You find out some amazing things when you suspend judgment,” Bahr said.
After the talks staff collected donations from the students for HOPE 4 Youth. Additional donations were also collected at a choir concert occurring at the same time at Blaine High School.
Next, students marched out to Blaine High School’s tennis courts to construct their cardboard shelters for the night. Linn Star Transfer in Vadnais Heights donated 200 boxes to the students.
“I think it’s awesome that we get to come out here and experience what a lot of people don’t really get to experience,” senior Noah Ranem said. “I’ve lived in a home all my life and have had a typical high schooler upbringing, so getting to experience this provides a lot of perspective on the other side of things.”
“It’s impactful to see that all the people who came out here and who want to help end homelessness,” added senior Chris Hess. “This is going to be hard, but not nearly as hard as what homeless people have to deal with every day. I’m excited to learn and experience what it might be like for someone who’s homeless.”
Additionally Rebyl Sports in Coon Rapids donated T-shirts for the event at production cost; Chain of Lakes Church donated sandwiches and water; and U-Haul donated a U-Haul to move the cardboard boxes to the high school.
The students stayed on the tennis courts from 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, through 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25. Overnight, students watched the film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” lit fires and played music. The Minnesota National Guard stood watch overnight.
In the morning the students cleaned up the tennis courts and went inside to attend school for the day.
Anyone who needs assistance or would like to donate to HOPE 4 Youth, can visit hope4youthmn.org or call 763-323-2066.