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LYNN — Members of the youth-ministry program at Sacred Heart Parish left their cell phones, laptops, sleeping bags and pillows at home and spent a chilly October night sleeping outside in cardboard shelters to experience what it is like to be homeless and to raise awareness of the problem.
Nearly 20 young people and a handful of adult chaperones braved the cold and a late-night rainstorm Oct. 2 and camped out in the parking lot of the parish for 24 hours. Beforehand, they decided none of the comforts of home would be allowed on this overnighter, just the basics — some blankets, canned food, a few pots and pans, and, of course, sheets of cardboard.
"They tried to put themselves as close as they could in the shoes of someone who is homeless," said Richard Madaglia, the youth-ministry coordinator at Sacred Heart Parish.
Madaglia, who originated the idea of sleeping outside to raise homelessness awareness, describes himself as a “strong advocate for the homeless.” His uncle became homeless years ago and lived and died on the streets. “Nobody knows where he died,” Madaglia said.
He wanted to show the kids, who ranged from seventh graders to high-school students, that the homeless aren’t all scary, unclean people, but that they are people’s relatives and friends. “It could be anyone,” he said.
The youths spent the first several hours constructing their shelters. Some made tepees and others formed three-sided boxes out of the cardboard. They surrounded their camp with handmade posters on topics such as how to help the homeless and where the homeless can find jobs and food. They also collected canned food, toiletries and close to $100 donated by parishioners to nearby shelters.
When it started to get dark, they cooked dinner together and lit candles representing the hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts children, their own age and younger, who will be homeless at some point during the year.
"Many people see the homeless as middle-aged men who have had difficulties in their lives, which led them to live on the streets," said Madaglia. "People do not always realize that entire families, even children, are homeless," he added.
During the night, it began to rain and the experience “got very realistic,” Madaglia said. “Some of their shelters started to collapse and fall down. Many of the kids said their lowest point was after it rained and their bedding was damp and it was very cold out.”
David Riley, a 10th grader who participated in the exercise, agreed that the rain was “the worst part” of the experience. Riley had eagerly anticipated spending the night outside and learning more about homelessness. He even convinced a few of his reluctant friends to participate. After sleeping outside in the rain and the cold, he has a better understanding of what it means to be homeless.
"It gave us a different perspective. It was like walking in someone else's shoes," he said. "I'm glad I'm not homeless and definitely more grateful for what I have."
Riley said spending the night as a homeless person made him value even his most modest possessions. “I missed my radio the most, because I was missing the Red Sox game,” he said.
Madaglia hopes the experience showed the young people that the homeless are people with the same hopes and feelings as they have. “I hope it taught them compassion as well as social justice to be able to reach out and love one another, to have appreciation for our fellow man.” he said.