Challenge By Choice: Cardboard City

Challenge by Choice: an environment where participants are asked to search for opportunities to stretch and grow during the experience

This past week, I participated in the Honors Program tradition called, Cardboard City. This event is a campus wide service opportunity meant to raise awareness of homelessness in America. To do this, students spend the night outside in cardboard boxes to simulate what homeless people do every day. We stayed on the lawn outside of the Park Library, November 15th from 7:30pm to 7:30am. I identified myself on the Active Citizen continuum as a “conscious citizen”, because I have always thought a lot about the problem of hunger and homelessness, but had yet to take any steps to further my involvement or knowledge. This service opportunity was a way to move further along the continuum to active citizenship. I used this event to fulfill “Becoming an Active Citizen Serving the Greater Good”.

Active Citizen Continuum

I have always been very sympathetic to the homeless community; I get very offended when people accuse individuals on the street of being lazy or addicts. The reality is, many of them were just dealt bad hands in life. This is part of the reason I chose to get involved. The stigma behind homelessness is part of the reason America has not solved the issue yet. Like I previously mentioned, I myself had a lot of experience and education left to learn on the topic as well. It is really enlightening to forego my privilege and experience the lifestyle many have no choice to live. I compliment the other individuals who participated, because it takes a lot of social awareness to make the step to participate in a fairly drastic event considering those of us who have never slept outside in our lives.

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of students who were participating. It takes a lot of mental strength and resilience to choose to sleep in a cardboard box in Michigan as winter approaches and it was nice to see I was not the only one who left strongly about the issue. I got my box all set up and found some familiar faces from my class. We all had homework to do so a lot of us were using laptops to finish up. Aside from the electronics, the event was pretty realistic. It rained nearly all night so we had to be creative on how to keep the boxes dry so they wouldn’t fall apart. You really don’t concern yourself with the elements until the elements are your home. My biggest struggle was where I was supposed to fit my bags, that had my clothes and belongings in it. My box, which was decently large compared to others, was not meant to sleep myself and all my belongings. Looking back, that is probably not an issue many homeless people have to worry about. However, I can see why the few things homeless people own are so important to them; to keep your shoes, clothes, work gear, etc. dry and safe outside is difficult, and when it all you have, it becomes even more important.

Many people started taking off throughout the night, but I felt committed to sticking out the remaining hours. I eventually had to leave at 2am because I was feeling very sick, but I did not leave easily. I truly wanted to experience being homeless; it’s not like a homeless person can choose to pack up and go home, so I felt very guilty about having to. However, I also felt proud for being dedicated enough to sleep outside for 6 hours when I had to opportunity to sleep in my bed. I think a lot of people write off the homeless as useless, but the amount of courage and determination it takes to survive the cold, the negativity, and the hardship makes them warriors in my book. I began to really struggle at the midnight mark when I began to not feel well and the temperature dropped. I can honestly say I would like to never do it again; the reality is people do it every day.

Through the week, when I told my friends, family, and classmates that I planned to participate, I receive the craziest looks and remarks. No one could believe I was actually going to do it. That gave me pride in what I was doing even more, not for the recognition but because I was making them think. If by me discussing the event and taking the initiative to do it made those around me thinking about the issue a little more often, envision their privilege as such, or make steps to emulate my actions, then I have made a difference in poverty justice.

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