By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – Local teens left their electronics at home and spent a cold, snowy night April 8 in tarp-covered boxes on Sacred Heart Parish grounds to experience what homeless people endure nightly.
Julie Wieleba-Milkie of Dearborn, director of faith formation and youth and young adult ministry at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and School, 22430 Michigan Ave., said 30 teens and five adults stayed for the entire night, and nine other adults worked in shifts for an added adult presence and security.
Sacred Heart hosted participants from two other Roman Catholic churches, St. Sebastian, 3965 Merrick in Dearborn Heights, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, 16101 Rotunda Drive.
Wieleba-Milkie said that during a debriefing after a 7 a.m. wakeup call, participants shared an appreciation of their beds, as well as the insight that homelessness is not a conscious choice teens would make.
Sacred Heart School religion and English teacher Kristin Nash of Lincoln Park said the annual event ties into the study of social justice, and young adults from Covenant House of Michigan, 2959 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Detroit, visit the event to share their first-hand, real-life homeless experiences.
“(Participants) get an understanding of the people, the men, women and children, who from night to night, day to day, don’t have a place to call home,” Nash said. “(Participants) stay in a box, they are giving up all their luxuries – no electronics, no snacking, not even a flashlight. They are just going to sit in a box and come to understand what it might feel like, just for a night, to not have a place called home.”
This was the first time it had ever snowed during the event, Nash said, but they have had thunderstorms, rain and cold other years. She said the cold reminds participants that homelessness is year-round, makes them appreciate what they do have, and takes students beyond their textbooks.
“This allows students to go beyond what we just discuss in the classroom,” she said.
Wieleba-Milkie said homelessness is a very real and serious issue among teens.
“I want our teens to realize that they are called to be an advocate for social justice issues,” Wieleba-Milkie said, “and for them to have a better understanding of their homes and what it would be like for one night to not have that.”
Catherine Lehmkuhl, 13, of Dearborn, said she was experiencing the frustration of trying to improvise shelter as she tried to set up her box.
“I think it is going to change how I think about homelessness,” Lehmkuhl said.
Vincent Bruno, 12, of Dearborn said learning how the homeless live is part of his preparation for confirmation.
“It’s going to be hard, cold, difficult to get through the night,” Bruno said.
Madilynn Mendez, 13, of Dearborn said she will appreciate warmth and what she has more, while Emma Cornejo, 12, of Dearborn said experiencing first-hand how some people are forced to live will change her perspective.
“I only have to do this for one night, and I already feel like it is going to be hard,” Cornejo said. “Some people have to do this every day, all the time, and so I think that I will be more thankful for everything that I have and how I can live.”
St. Sebastian director of religion education Jan Russell of Allen Park hopes the youth participating get a sense of what it is like to not have things they take for granted, and how isolated the homeless can become.
“We always have that option of being warm, and (the homeless) don’t,” Russell said. “Next time they see someone, maybe they’ll have more compassion.”
Grace Hunt, 13, of Dearborn said it helps her understand the plight of people living on the street who never know when they will be told to move their improvised shelter.
“They go through a lot,” Hunt said. “It’s kind of sad. You can’t blame them for it. Maybe they just made one wrong decision and that’s what happened.”
Isabelle Drennon, 13, of Dearborn said she wants to see how other people have to live.
“I think it’s a big problem that is facing the whole world,” Drennon said. “You need to be aware of it. It’s not just something you can brush off. It’s going to have to be dealt with some day.”
Tavon McBride, 12, who lives at Covenant House in Detroit and was homeless as a teen, said it is important for young people to know what could happen to them.
He said a common misconception people have about the homeless is that they are drug addicts or they made poor choices.
“My story is totally the exact opposite,” McBride said. “Not everybody on the street put themselves there. It’s really being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or neglect, or abuse. When you think you have nobody who cares about you, you have nothing but the streets to turn to.”
Nicholas Turner, 19, of Covenant House said people often think of the homeless as older people asking for money, and they had never thought of teens as being on the streets and sleeping in abandoned houses.
“Being homeless is hard,” Turner said. “If you burn bridges, if you are not trying to be on top of your game, if you are fooling around, this can happen to you.”
Michelle Kuhar, community relations and PR liaison for Covenant House, said stereotypes are broken when formerly homeless young adults share their stories with teens.
“A lot of people have misconceptions about what homelessness looks like, especially youth homelessness,” Kuhar said. “Actually having some of our youth come here and talk about their real life experiences breaks a lot of stereotypes and helps people to understand how easy it is to become homeless.
“Sometimes its a parent losing a job, sometimes it’s a single parent family that’s struggling; sometimes situations are a lot more serious than that – foster care, adoption. A lot of people think everyone who is homeless is a drug addict or into alcohol, and that is certainly not the case.”
St. Kateri faith formation director Grace Lakatos of Dearborn said she thinks the teens need to hear a point of view different from their own lifestyle.
“Most of our children, although they are exposed to the technology, they are not exposed to reality,” Lakatos said. “I want to see the reactions of these kids tomorrow morning, when they wake up, what they are going to be thankful for, and how they are going to go forward with it.
“This is our future of our world, our faith, of everything, and if they don’t get a grasp on it now, I wonder when they will.”
Nash said the teens who participate are changed.
“I think it’s a transforming experience that more teens really should try,” Nash said, “especially because it does give you a chance to be thankful for what you have, and it adds some kind of depth to the prayers you say for the homeless. I think this is an experience all the kids should try at least once.”