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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 eye-opener.

"Homeless people do illegal things to eat and live," says Ana Schcolnak, 13. "Desperate people do desperate things."

Shock factor

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 this.'"

“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. 

Getting involved

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.

Matthew Lipman, 13, sorts through hygiene items donated for the homeless by members of First United Methodist
Church in Chicago.

Thirteen-year-old Matthew Lipman already was sensitized to the needs of the homeless, even before going on his Night Walk.

"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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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