Remembering the cold at One Winter Night 2015

Volunteers keep warm at the fourth annual One Winter Night event on Friday, where volunteers raised money for C-U at Home.  

By Sarah Foster

With a cardboard box beside her and a difficult past behind, Champaign resident Breelyn Mehrtens leans on the edge of a portable chair, staring into the distance.

“I had been homeless during the summer (of 2002),” Mehrtens said, pulling the tops of her pink mittens over her fingertips, “from June to August.”

Though it’s been more than 10 years, she can’t help but think of those three months — especially as she decides to relive that past again, during C-U at Home’s fourth annual “One Winter Night.”

The Friday night event winded down the streets and sidewalks of downtown Champaign. According to Jay Schubert, volunteer coordinator and donations organizer for C-U at Home, the organization has raised $95,000 so far this year. The event’s organizers aimed to raise a total of $100,000. Melany Jackson, executive director for C-U at Home, said this year’s event doubled the number of box dwellers and funds, and it benefited from the added educational component new to this year’s event.

Tony Comtois, mentor for C-U at Home who also participated as a box dweller, has been active with C-U at Home for approximately three years. He presented in the education program at Friday’s event and spoke about the importance of shelter living.

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“When the speaking part was over with, some of the people were out walking around visiting the box dwellers, and when they saw me in mine, they told me it was great,” Comtois said of the reception for the educational program. “To not just only have the homeless awareness event, but to also have an educational part of it.”

Only two hours after the event’s 6 p.m. start, Mehrtens’ skin turns red from exposure to the chilly, February air. She knew bearing the conditions for another 10 hours wouldn’t be easy, but she said she wouldn’t have missed it.

“Not only are (the homeless) cold and hungry, but they also deal with feelings of shame put on them by other people. Shame leads to loss of self-worth, which leads to depression, which leads to hopeless feelings,” Mehrtens said. “It’s a big reason I hid when I was homeless. I wanted to make a statement about something that I have passion for.”

As she repositions her red hat to block the wind, Mehrtens remembers that difficult time in her life, being unaware if her situation would ever improve. When she moved from Alabama to Champaign in 2002 to escape an abusive situation, she had no home, no job and barely any money. For three months, Mehrtens substituted a car for a bed and a parking lot for a home. She couch-hopped, stayed up all night and slept in parks during the day. She shuffled through parking lots, hoping to find enough change just to afford a candy bar for food.

Tears begin to form in Mehrtens’ eyes as she remembers eventually finding housing through a generous friend. On that 32-degree night, she said she would do anything to make sure others didn’t experience what she did.

“I always feel that I don’t do enough for other people,” Mehrtens said as she wipes her eyes. “I cannot stand for people to be hungry or cold — I’ll cry. I just can’t do it.”

Mehrtens frequently keeps extra snacks, bananas, gloves and scarves on her, just in case she sees someone in need. But when she discovered C-U at Home’s One Winter Night around the 2015 New Year, she knew this was another important opportunity to bear her hurtful past and help others.

“Nobody should have to be homeless,” Mehrtens said. “It’s not like they’re all alcoholics. They’re people that have one or two bad things that happen to them and just couldn’t get back up again. If it’s one or two little bad things that put them there, one or two little good things can help them out of there.”

But Mehrtens doesn’t hope to relive utter homelessness alone during One Winter Night. Zipped to his chin in a puffy blue, orange and white coat is her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Benjamin.

“I like him to know that he’s got it good because not everyone does,” Mehrtens said.

As she feeds her son, she remembers her childhood home, where the only heating unit her family could afford was a stove.

“Never, ever, ever, ever take home and food for granted, because one day it may not be there,” she said.

Inside the cardboard box, Benjamin huddles with his Winnie the Pooh blanket, his arms enlarged from five layers of T-shirts his mother dressed him in. He begins to sing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” attracting several pedestrians already walking the sidewalks of Neil Street to notice and socialize with him. Mehrtens said she hopes her toddler doesn’t just learn a lesson, but that he teaches one to the Champaign-Urbana community as well.

“Homelessness does not know an age,” she said. “It’s not necessarily people that are strung out on drugs. It’s not just some random stranger that you could pass by and pretend not to see. It’s a real person. It could be your friend. It could be kids.”

But most of all, Mehrtens said enduring the cold for One Winter Night will teach others something that she believes is missing in today’s society toward homelessness — empathy.

“We’re all on Twitter, and we’re all on Facebook, but when we use the site, we forget that we’re all actually flesh-and-blood human beings,” Mehrtens said. “What you do or say hurts someone in real life. It makes someone else feel something.”

Sarah can be reached at [email protected].