Cowritten by Christy Ulmet and LaTasha Lee
The Thursday before Thanksgiving, while many were preparing for a feast with family and friends, hundreds gathered in Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Ave. NW to take part in National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week. The week is recognized annually to assist service providers, promote the national endeavor to end homelessness and effect change in the lives of those living in poverty.
Sleep Out is a signature event of Covenant House, a national faith based organization on a mission to protect homeless youth, nearly 80 community supporters braved the 35 degree cold to “Sleep Out” for one night on the street. The event works as a localized fundraiser, with participants collecting sponsors ahead of time – similar to a charity run.
“Events like Sleep Out are a step to create awareness and make a huge impact,” said Jeff Franco, Executive Director of City Year Washington, DC. “I have a heart for youth. Covenant House and City Year share a common interest in helping kids and teens in need.”
Several City Year volunteers attended with Franco, this year was his second year sleeping out for Covenant House.
“Here in D.C. you see both extreme privilege and poverty,” Franco said, calling it the “tale of two cities.”
Starting with a candlelight vigil, participants listened to stories from several young people about their experience on the street and how things have changed since they became a part of the organization. Afterwards, the youths returned to Covenant House DC where 74 young people were kept safe and warm. The advocates remained to sleep on the sidewalks.
Another participant, Laura Tarnosky, teaches at Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland, and brought her family out to brave the cold. Tarnosky teaches her students about the effects homelessness. One even brought her and her team hot chocolate at midnight, and some of the students have taken interest in starting their own team in the future. She and her husband began volunteering nearly a decade – they started with a Covenant House in California. The Tarnoskys raised close to $5,000 this year. The DC chapter raised more than $164,000 at this year’s Sleep Out to continue their work.
“One night is hardly anything compared to what homeless youths experience,” Tarnosky said.
The People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) has been preparing for another upcoming sleep out and vigil. Since 1990 The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has co-sponsored National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day: a vigil to commemorate those who have died while homeless at a candlelight service.
Last year PFFC other advocacy groups organized a sleep out demonstration the night before the vigil and a rally leading up to it to raise awareness about chronic homelessness. Local officials visited the sleep out;. experts from local service providers spoke to the morning crowd; and all members of the homeless community in Washington who have passed away this year.
This year PFFC aims for a second powerful demonstration on December 18th and 19th.
Street Sense vendor Robert Warren, who heads the newspaper’s vendor advocacy group called Focus Attitude Commitment to Excellence (FACE), and is also a leader with PFFC. Both groups have helped with much of the preparation for the vigil.
“This year, we’re looking to have more people. We’ve tried to reach out to a lot of people so more know about it,” Warren said. NCH, the DC Fair Budget Coalition, Miriam’s Kitchen, The Way Home campaign and others have signed on to help set up the event and spread the word. Preparation has
taken months. This year the groups are looking to step beyond raising awareness.
“Our goal is to address the homeless citizens’ needs,” Warren said. “It’s especially important that we reach out to those who don’t go through shelters, because they don’t always have extra help.”
Warren and his group are assembling care kits for those living on the streets, to show them that they’re not alone in their plight. Additionally, he said he’d like to help educate the homeless about some of the issues they may struggle with, like alcohol and addiction.
To kick off the vigil on the 18th, participants will meet at the burial site of the late homeless advocate, Mitch Schneider at 6 p.m. From there, the group will form a procession to Freedom Plaza. Similar to last year, the Freedom Plaza sleep out participants are encouraged to stay and even sleep outside through at least 2 a.m., though the full event will last until 10 a.m. on the 19th.
Warren felt that it’s important people begin to understand the problems faced by those they pass by as they’re walking to and from work every day.
“I truly believe that with the great services we have in DC, we definitely can fight homelessness. I would just encourage everyone to please come join us, and to join the whole campaign to end chronic homelessness,” Warren said.
The candlelight vigil will occur at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church at 9pm on Dec. 18, several blocks from Freedom Plaza.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3 edition of Street Sense.