'One Winter Night' brings C-U community together

By Sarah Foster

“We just talked about our stupid behaviors — but none of it was good,” Comtois said.

Standing beside several cardboard boxes that lined the sidewalks of downtown Champaign, he returned to a difficult part of his past as he participated in C-U At Home’s “One Winter Night.” He remembered a time filled with issues of sobriety, addiction and homelessness.

“For a lot of us, once you get on that track, it’s hard to change,” Comtois said. “I woke up one day in 2006 and said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore.’ I packed a bag and walked away.”

But as Comtois returned to a similar situation by simulating homelessness that Friday evening, this time, he did it for a new reason: to make a difference.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Comtois, now a mentor for C-U At Home, was one of 155 box dwellers at the organization’s fifth-annual “One Winter Night,” where participants spent a 12-hour night outside in refrigerator boxes. According to Melany Jackson, executive director of C-U At Home, this year’s event was the biggest yet. Not only were there more box dwellers, but so far, over $128,000 has been raised, beating last year’s total by almost $20,000.

The goal is to raise $150,000 by Feb. 18, and all proceeds go directly to C-U At Home’s five ministries, including The Phoenix.

Just this year, The Phoenix moved into a new location in Campustown at 34 E. Green St. and hopes to incorporate more University students.

According to Comtois, “One Winter Night” is the primary way the organization raises money for all of these goals.

“We are completely private funded. It exists all on private donations,” he said. “Our budget consists of ‘One Winter Night.’”

According to Jackson, if the organization meets this year’s goal, they can hire a new full-time staff member.

But the money raised doesn’t just go to The Phoenix. It also goes to the organization’s other four areas: outreach, transitional housing, transportation ministries, and education and advocacy.

Even though “One Winter Night” is the main fundraising event for C-U at Home, Comtois said it’s about more than just the money.

“Fundraising is important, but we need to get to know the real-life situation. Money is huge but not the solution,” he said. “We need people. We need resources.”

To find these people and resources, “One Winter Night” continued with its educational component for the second year. Several speakers presented on various topics about homelessness in the Champaign City Council Chambers throughout the night.

But this also inspired the introduction of another component to the annual event. A documentary entitled, “The Phoenix: Hope Is Rising” debuted that night, detailing the origin stories of Jackson, Comtois, C-U At Home and The Phoenix.

“I think it really helped a lot of people understand more about our ministry who don’t know the different things that we do,” Jackson said. “I think it really brought it to life to be able to have it in video form.”

But not only did the documentary talk about origin stories, it also explained the causes of the high homelessness rate in Champaign-Urbana, citing the closure of several mental health institutions in Central-Illinois area as one of the reasons.

Comtois said this was beneficial in addressing misconceptions about homelessness.

“A lot of people think the ones on the streets are just ones who struggled with addiction, but unless you address the mental institutions, you have people on the street forever,” Comtois said.

He said it’s important to not just know that homelessness exists but to also know the causes.

“It’s another way to get information out there,” he said. “It’s not just about making people aware — it’s about explaining why it is the way it is. If you say they’re homeless because of this reason, people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that.’”

To Brittany Barajas, freshman in Education who also was a box dweller that night, this documentary was especially inspiring.

“I already signed up to volunteer at C-U At Home,” she said. “A lot of places will serve food and give out items, but to C-U At Home, it’s not about the stuff. It’s about establishing trust and letting them know that they’re loved.”

Barajas volunteered with a group of students affiliated with the Stamp Scholars and raised over $1,000 for the organization. She said she learned a lot by spending a night in a box.

“I wanted to experience what it would be like in their shoes,” she said. “No matter how many layers you wear, you can’t get completely comfortable. It was very cold. There are plenty of people who don’t even have a box. It really opened my heart. I want to view people without an address as people like everyone else, who are just going through a rough time.”

Jackson said the event’s success taught her how much the event means to the community.

“It brings the community together behind this cause,” she said. “It’s a way for people to get involved and learn more about the issues related to homelessness, to invest their time and their money, and help us get people more involved.”

Since the Friday night event, Jackson said she’s received several notes from potential volunteers. But, to Jackson, she thinks they’re better off called as friends.

“They want to get involved, and that’s so valuable. This is so much more focused on relationships than work,” she said. “Friends is a good word.”

Though Comtois has since found a new address and home, he still feels the struggles of financial insecurity.

“I still don’t feel like I’ve got past it that much,” Comtois said.

But on that night, Comtois said he was thankful for the opportunity to use his story to help make a difference.

“I know the struggles,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’”

[email protected]