On Monday, Nov. 19, approximately 50 McNick seniors arrived back on campus around 5 p.m. No, this was not to watch a basketball or volleyball game or attend a theatre performance; these seniors returned to participate in Shantytown. This city-wide program, coordinated by the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, is designed to bring attention to the struggles and realities of homelessness while allowing students to stand in solidarity with those who do not have a place to call home.
These senior Service Club members began building makeshift shelters out of cardboard boxes, tarps and duct tape. Some students collaborated and combined materials to make group shelters while others opted to go solo. By the time the allotted 45 minutes to build was up, the lawn under the glass hallway had become McNick’s own shantytown.
As darkness fell and temperatures continued to drop, a cold misty rain descended upon the students and their newly built shelters. There was no time to worry about the weather, though, as the students needed to obtain food for the night. Each student was allotted $2 and 6 minutes to shop at the Mt. Washington Kroger. On the rainy walk down Beechmont Avenue, most students latched onto groups and much like they did in the building of the shelters, pooled together their resources to squeeze the most out of what was available. Chaos ensued as soon as students stepped foot in Kroger and there was a mad dash to find the best deals on bread, peanut butter, protein bars, fruit, lunch meat, and more.
Back on campus but still outside, students huddled together to enjoy the newly-purchased food while student leaders taught statistics on homelessness and poverty and briefly explained how these issues affect not only the nation but Cincinnati as well. Society has developed apathetic attitudes towards the homeless crisis and often simply ignores the problem all together treating those who experience homelessness as outcasts. As senior Shantytown leader Maggie Schoolfield said, “Don’t ignore the invisible.”
After the student leaders took their classmates through the initial exercises, Dr. Mark Mussman, Director of Education for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, gave an insight on the work his organization does every day to combat this crisis. Mussman then introduced Sam, a man who had experienced homelessness and climbed back out of it. An emotional Sam courageously told his story of struggle and overcoming obstacles as students and teachers listened. Senior Jill Tore said, “I liked Sam a lot. He was inspiring and I felt like it took a lot out of him to open up to us.”
Following Sam’s touching personal testimony, students created a physical “web of homelessness” to show the complexity of the problems that can cause homelessness. Homelessness disproportionately affects children and their educational opportunities as only 25% of students experiencing homelessness graduate high school. Senior Daniel English responded to this discouraging statistic and said, “I’ve never lived a life without going to school or having the certainty of going to college. There’s never been a doubt in my mind. For some of these kids, it’s a dream just to graduate high school.”
The average age of someone experiencing homelessness in America is only nine years old. This reality struck a chord with many Shantytown participants including senior Jenah Farrell. “It made me think of how a lot of people my own sister’s age don’t have a home. She just turned 10,” Farrell said.
Teacher and Shantytown leader Teresa Davis discussed the importance of continuing the Shantytown tradition at McNick. Davis said, “The line between our differences is so small… We have to meet people face to face… and love them where they are. It was so important for Sam to tell his story in the way he did it and how he did it. Listening to their stories makes that thin line even thinner.”
During a study hall in the cafeteria, many students used part of the time to take pieces of leftover cardboard that did not make it onto the shelters and write messages that called attention to the truths of the homeless crisis.
Senior Miranda Taylor wrote, “Not everyone who’s homeless is addicted.”
“Poverty is more expensive than being rich,” said senior Nick Russo.
Senior Kate Murray wrote, “Don’t assume. Don’t judge. Just HELP.”
Before the students retired for the night, they were given the option to sleep inside due to the near freezing temperatures and damp weather, and while some did need to sleep in the halls, many others were adamant in sticking it out despite the elements.
Seniors Nate Chambers, Adam Luckey, and Mark Dill were among those who elected to sleep in their cardboard shelters on the grass.
Chambers said, “I wanted to get the full experience. After listening to the speaker (Sam) it wouldn’t be right (to sleep inside).”
Each person had a unique experience on the night of Shantytown. Some struggled to find warmth in their boxes while others attempted to seal off all openings of their shelters to stay as dry as possible. Many huddled together with friends and zipped sleeping bags tightly around themselves to hold in the heat.
Early the next morning, students dismantled the dwellings they had constructed only hours before and proceeded to go to take up their cardboard signs and greet students arriving for the school day outside the entrances.