The Diag was occupied by more than 30 students Tuesday night participating in the first “One Night Without a Home” sleep-out in Ann Arbor. The event, hosted by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, as well as student activist organizations MReach and CURIS – Public Health Advocacy, comes as one of many organized by SAWC this week as a part of the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
The event, which accompanied other “Nights Without a Home” held across the country, featured speeches from University of Michigan student organizations The Dot Org and Poverty Solutions, testimonials from former SAWC clients, activities to help students confront the realities of homelessness and a candlelight vigil held in honor of lives lost to homelessness. Over the course of the evening, attendees were invited to confront their biases toward people experiencing homelessness.
Sarah Papsal, SAWC Director of Development, said the event is meant to “simulate homelessness” to the fullest extent possible in a single night. Papsal explained that while students may never understand what it is like to go weeks without a shower or clean clothes, they can empathize with the fear of spending a night alone in the cold.
“We want to be very thoughtful about what we think we can understand,” Papsal said. “And we don’t want to be insulting to anyone (thinking) that we could truly understand what those individuals are going through, but we can talk about it. We can raise awareness.”
SAWC Director Dan Kelly addressed the crowd as the event began. Kelly implored attendees to leave the Diag with not only a greater understanding of what experiencing homelessness entails, but also an action plan for moving forward.
Student leaders from CURIS and MReach said they were eager to turn the event’s momentum into tangible action. CURIS rebranded their organization this year, moving away from clinical work and into advocacy. As a result, Public Health senior Josie Lee, president of CURIS, said the organization was seeking out a community partner who had experience in the field when their communication with SAWC began.
“Our purpose was, ‘They’re already doing so much, they already have the connections, but what were the gaps? Is there anything that we could maybe fill?’” Lee said.
Similarly, MReach is a new organization this semester. MReach President Cameron Zurawlow, Business junior, said the organization’s goal was to foster community partnerships such as that with SAWC.
“Hopefully this will be a night that CURIS and MReach continue to do every (year), and that was the main purpose of this year: establishing those relationships and making a change within the community,” Zurawlow said.
In planning for next year, Papsal noted the need to apply for an overnight permit further in advance. Despite having begun to plan for the event just as students returned to campus in September, Papsal said they did not apply for the overnight permit with enough notice to gain approval. The event, which lasted seven hours, ended at 2 a.m. rather than at daybreak because of this.
Lee also said she hopes next year’s turnout will be larger. She explained how in her four years at the University, she has observed many insensitive conversations where poverty is clearly misunderstood. Lee said this was likely on account of the privilege afforded to what she believes is a majority of University students.
“Personally, I feel like there’s something U-M students particularly … need to learn more about this,” Lee said. “They need to be more aware of this topic, so hopefully it will be a tradition that happens every year.”
Lee sees homelessness as a personal topic because there was a period during which her brother experienced homelessness. She and Papsal explained how quickly and irreversibly a person can transition from poverty to homelessness through no fault of their own.
Lee and Papsal also noted the importance of preventative measures. In Papsal’s experience, it is far easier to save someone’s housing situation at the last second than it is to begin anew when they become homeless.
SAWC client Yolanda Neely said when SAWC acknowledged her humanity as well as her homelessness, she was finally able to begin the recovery process.
“I say that was the first day of the beginning of my new life and the last day of the end of my old life, with me not knowing it,” Neely said. “I went there angry, upset, thinking my life was over, but they gave me something that I didn’t think that I had. They cared for me.”
Neely also expressed a need for more preventative measures against homelessness, such as affordable housing. She referenced Ann Arbor’s housing crisis, which Papsal blames for SAWC’s inability to house virtually any of their clients in Ann Arbor post-recovery.
The fight for affordable housing in Ann Arbor, which has been brewing for years, persists in Ann Arbor among both students and residents. Protesters took to the street on Sunday in order to protest mounting difficulties.
Ann Arbor City Council discussed the issue Monday, approving a proposal to begin affordable housing development by a 9-2 vote. In regard to the decision, Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward, who voted in favor of the development, advised listeners that, despite the proposal’s success, any tangible changes were likely four to five years down the road.
In the meantime, Papsal urged students who are interested in helping to donate or contact SAWC at 734-662-2829 for more information on volunteering.
“Our greatest goal would be that people would want to come to us and more meaningful ways to volunteer and actually have more client interaction,” Papsal said. “Really having the greatest minds in the community (use) their energy to do more than what they’re currently doing.”