|Youth experience ‘night walk’ as homeless teen|
Chicago youth participating in the Night Walk program head
into the cold to experience what it is like to be homeless. UMNS photos
by Jon Kaplan.
By Jon Kaplan*
March 25, 2008 | CHICAGO (UMNS)
As he wanders Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood trying to stay warm on a
bitterly cold night, 12-year-old Henry Nash seems relieved and grateful
he only has to be homeless for an hour.
"I can go home and sleep and eat and what not; and someone out here
can’t, and they just have to spend the night and go hungry," Henry says.
"It’s really, really kind of sad when you think about it."
Henry wonders how real homeless youngsters survive. Chicago, like most
major cities, has more than 10,000 children between the ages of 12 and
21 who have no place to live. They are generally runaways or at-risk
youth who are pregnant, physically or sexually abused, drug addicts,
alcoholics, mentally ill or destitute. Even more shocking, the average
age of a homeless person in the United States is 9.
This cold dose of reality is the goal of Night Walk, an urban immersion
experience that helps individuals encounter street life at night from a
homeless youth's perspective. The experience is sponsored by The Night
Ministry, a nondenominational, nonprofit organization that serves
Chicago's most vulnerable people.
Night Walk only lasts about an hour, and young participants are always
under adult supervision. But for most youngsters, it’s a real
"Homeless people do illegal things to eat and live," says Ana Schcolnak, 13. "Desperate people do desperate things."
On this night, Ana and two others in her group find a spot in an
alley behind a hospital where a homeless person uses a cardboard box for
shelter and lives off scraps of food found in a nearby dumpster.
"I was thinking a lot about how scary it was," remembers Isabel Hale,
13. "I felt like, 'Wow, I can’t believe people actually have to do
“Sometimes they come back just dripping wet and cold. That’s also part of the experience of being out on the streets.”–Julie Delezenne
The shock factor of homelessness is an important part of the Night
Walk program, according to Julie Delezenne, a counselor with The Night
Ministry who leads the youngsters in a discussion when they return.
"It’s hard to imagine; it shocks them." Delezenne says. "Sometimes they
come back just dripping wet and cold. That’s also part of the experience
of being out on the streets."
Even though the Night Walk is brief, organizers say it can have a lasting impact on an individual––and on the community beyond.
"I think it’s really important to get youth involved, like the Night
Walk is trying to do, to educate folks. And once they go through the
Night Walk, they’re able to tell their parents, they’re able to tell
their communities, their congregations, about what they’ve experienced
too," Delezenne says.
Often, Night Walk inspires youth participants to become involved in
projects to help the homeless. Many wind up volunteering at The Night
Ministry or through their church.
Thirteen-year-old Matthew Lipman already was sensitized to the needs of the homeless, even before going on his Night Walk.
Matthew Lipman, 13, sorts through hygiene items donated for the homeless by members of First United Methodist
Church in Chicago.
"Every Christmas, our family goes around and helps the homeless we see
on the street," Matthew says. "And I noticed they don’t have the things
you need––a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a washcloth––and then I went to
The Night Ministry and got the idea to collect hygiene kits."
Matthew organized a drive at Chicago’s First United Methodist Church,
asking the congregation to donate toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap,
shampoo, washcloths and pre-moistened towels.
His mother, Joan Brogdon, says Matthew's project became a family affair.
"He came home after church, poured the stuff all over the floor like
Halloween candy and started sorting it. His sister jumped in, as did my
husband. It was fun and he had fun doing it," she says.
Matthew raised nearly $1,000 and enough goods to make several dozen
hygiene kits. The efforts not only helped many homeless people but also
taught Matthew a valuable lesson.
"First and foremost, I hope he feels really good about giving," Brogdon
says. "I hope he learns that giving is a part of life and that you feel
rich inside. I think the happy person is the generous person who gives
willingly and I hope he carries this forward."
*Kaplan is a freelance producer in Chicago.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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