Oakton students open door to homeless awareness
Elizabeth Adcox, 23, of Des Plaines, arranges her cardboard box "home" in the courtyard of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines on Nov. 27. Students built a "shanty village" to raise awareness about homelessness. | Michael Jarecki~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 7, 2013 6:07AM
DES PLAINES — Des Plaines resident Ryan Alm woke up last week with a wicked cold after sleeping outdoors on the hard ground in a cardboard shack.
“I spent most of the night tossing and turning,” he said. “My face was freezing.”
But Alm couldn’t call in sick or skip class. The 20-year-old Oakton Community College student went about his business and, by 4 p.m., was completely exhausted.
“It’s a shame that people have to go through this every day,” said Alm, who along with 26 peers spent the night in crudely constructed shanties to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless.
The Oakton chapter of Habitat for Humanity created an on-campus “shantytown” to expose the varying degrees of poverty experienced locally and abroad.
Every night in Illinois an estimated 14,000 people experience homelessness, reported the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ State of Homelessness report. A majority of those people live in shelters and transitional housing, while about 16 percent go unsheltered. Families comprise 41 percent of the overall homeless population in the United States.
Marvin Bornschlegl, faculty advisor of Oakton’s Habitat chapter, said the school’s second overnight event, held Nov. 27, reflected a “tremendous philosophical change” for the project.
Participants last November camped out the eve of Veterans Day, staying up late and socializing. They took down the temporary shelters the next morning before returning to their real homes.
“It took away from the dynamic of the experience,” Bornschlegl said.
This year the chapter shifted gears and, with the help of 30 school clubs, created and left the shanties to dot Oakton’s Des Plaines campus for a week. Sleep-out participants had a more true-to-life experience by not having the luxury of immediately returning home.
“How is it going through a day with that chill inside of you?” Bornschlegl said. “How do you do that after a rough night and internally you’re still a little cold?”
He added: “It allowed them to look at the other side without an instructor there to teach and that’s where the real learning is.”
Skokie native Sahil Pruthi, 23, said he got a handful of hours of sleep that night in the shanty. A friend who also participated had left by 5 a.m. to pick up her siblings for school before heading to class.
“I learned not to take things for granted,” said Pruthi.
Though he didn’t feel well afterward Alm acknowledged that it was “a cool experience.”
And quite literally so. For most of the night the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. If it had dipped below 27 degrees students would have been ushered inside a school building.
Bornschlegl said that, too, would have revealed another struggle people have: the need to leave their few possessions unattended for the night in exchange for a temporary roof over their heads.
“It’s not so beyond reality for them to have things that we accept to be an item of value,” he said.
Challenging biases toward poverty was precisely the point of the project, Bornschlegl said.
Generations of family members packed into a house designed for four people are just as homeless as an individual sleeping on the street. So, too, are underemployed workers living out of their cars.
“There are different grades of homelessness,” he said. “That’s what I think students should learn.”