The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

DI Voices | I spent 1 winter night outdoors

Noah+Meyerhoff+bundles+up+in+warm+winter+gear.
Noah Meyerhoff
Noah Meyerhoff bundles up in warm winter gear.

On Friday, I slept outside in a parking lot for C-U at Home’s One Winter Night Outdoor Challenge. It’s partly a fundraiser, partly an awareness event that aims for its participants to — in CUAH’s words — “get uncomfortable and experience the difficulties (their) clients may have faced while homeless on cold winter nights.”

Let me name something up front: This experience is categorically incomparable with that of actual homelessness. What I did was essentially a camp-out. Some friends from my scholarship program and I slept in a tent. We had layers upon layers of warm clothing and blankets. We had snacks and drank hot cocoa. It would be inappropriate to say we “experienced difficulties.”

Even if, out of white-privileged curiosity to taste “authentic homelessness,” I had went without the tent, the long underwear, the balaclava, the blankets and the cocoa; and even if it had been a colder night — something sub-zero — the OWN Challenge still wouldn’t have even come close to real homelessness.

How do I know?

It’s because, when I lay awake at 3 a.m. shivering, or when I bound myself up like a frog by tucking my feet into the tails of my coat for warmth or whenever I had any occasion at all to be uncomfortable, I kept thinking the same thought:

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    “I can’t wait to be back in my own bed.”

    Which, I imagine, is the boundary line between camping and homelessness. I knew firmly that I had a ride home at 6 a.m. I knew it would just be for one night. I knew that, if I had an emergency, I could walk 10 feet and ask my friend to take me wherever I needed to be.

    And if you read from people who have actually experienced homelessness, you learn that’s not what it feels like. The people from this New York Times piece on homelessness describe feeling fear, loneliness, frustration, being in “survival mode” and not knowing what to do. 

    I faced none of those things to any significant degree.

    Having said all that — I am nevertheless very grateful for having done the challenge and feel that I did indeed learn from the night outside. For one, it’s a fundraiser. I will never regret giving money for a valuable cause … ahem.

    But beyond that: I now understand that sleeping in the cold is a truly miserable experience. The kind of thing you really can’t understand until you’ve done it yourself. And it is telling of my privilege that I spent 18 years never having had to suffer it. 

    Additionally, for any cause, firsthand experience serves to energize your sympathy. It motivates you to do good — assuming you want to do good — because it makes you identify, in this case, the plight of the homeless with something physical that you cannot forget.

    The cold makes you squirm. It paradoxically both deadens your limbs and enlivens them, making you shiver and wriggle around while your body searches for even a slightly warmer position. If you’re bundled up well enough, you won’t have to worry about frostbite — but make sure to keep yourself dry, or else you’ll wind up with a painful case of chilblains.

    It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. 

    I would, however, wish it upon you. Do not miss the chance to support C-U at Home by participating in their next OWN challenge.

     

    Noah is a freshman in DGS.

    [email protected] 

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