Volunteer sleep-out opens eyes

Cathy Huyghe is an award-winning author, a columnist at Forbes online, and the co-founder of big-data services provider Enolytics LLC. She is a trained mediator, and previously worked in international negotiation.

There’s a street corner in Buckhead, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of town, that’s within close proximity to luxury clothing stores, high-end hotels, expensive restaurants, and wealthy places of worship.

It’s also the street corner where johns go to engage prostitutes.

That isn’t something most people know unless they have a reason or a desire to know – they’re somehow involved in law enforcement, say, or in Atlanta’s highly active sex trafficking rings. Most people, however, drive right by, either unaware or unseeing of the situation.

In other words, it’s largely invisible.

In a similar way, Atlanta’s estimated population of 3,374 homeless and runaway youths are largely invisible to most of the city’s unaware or unseeing residents.

In an effort to raise awareness, visibility, and funds to address the situation, the Georgia chapter of Covenant House organized its fifth annual Sleep Out the Thursday before Thanksgiving; the Executive Edition, which welcomed more than 100 business and community leaders, took place at Covenant House’s campus on Johnson Road in Atlanta’s West Side.

The idea was for participants (including myself) to sleep outside for one night, and simulate the conditions that homeless youths face. We were encouraged to wear warm layers of clothes and to bring a pillow if we wanted. Covenant House provided dinner, restroom facilities, a sleeping bag, and a large cardboard box that, when laid flat, provided the buffer between the ground and the participant. Around midnight, we huddled around campfires and tucked into our sleeping bags for the night.

Let me be clear: this was like “homelessness light.” We were safe. We were in a protected area. We had enough clothes and enough to eat and drink. We slept in an open space in an industrial part of town, and sleep was punctuated by the noise of trains nearby and semi-trailer trucks shifting into gear at regular intervals, as they pulled away from red lights at intersections across the way.

We could sleep, we realized as we spoke to each other at an early breakfast the next morning. We could sleep because we knew we were in a safe place, and we were not facing the reality of homeless youth who have reason to fear the sounds of the night, from sirens and police cars to heavy boots walking toward you as you lay.

Those may be the fears of the invisible, that transition to real dangers when the invisible become visible to the wrong people.

Part of the purpose of the Sleep Out was to educate participants to see. Some of us rode along in vans, for example, visiting locations around town that are known to Covenant House staff as gathering areas of homeless and runaway youth. The staff tries to encourage the youth to come in, to find safety in the shelter, and to utilize the resources available to them.

It is at times a tough sell.

The youths have reason to be untrusting of institutions and “authority figures.” Many have been abused – physically, sexually, emotionally. Some have witnessed parents being taken to jail. Some have been part of, and refugees from, the foster care system for most years of their life. Some have been kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation. The list goes on.

You can see that these youths have been exposed to trauma and stress that compound and multiply the longer they are on the streets, yet that trauma and stress (often associated with institutions or organizations designed to “help”) are also exactly why they resist seeking or accepting the help that is offered.

It partly explains why, though those of us who participated in the “homelessness light” program could sleep during the night, actual homeless youth could not. I spoke with one of Covenant House’s current residents about her sleeping arrangements when she was still on the streets. She slept in an abandoned building, she said, which “did and did not feel safe, if you know what I mean.” I asked how she managed to stay safe during the nights. Her answer was that she didn’t actually sleep.

As though, when you’re on the streets, it’s hard to feel secure when your eyes are closed.

Ironically, opening our eyes is what the Sleep Out program was designed in part to do.

It worked.

Personal Note:

I woke shortly before 5 a.m. and did a quick body scan as I still lay on the ground. I did sleep, the way I sleep on a red-eye flight home from California to Atlanta: that is, erratically, despite being an otherwise very sound sleeper. I felt dizzy when I woke, as though my head and the rest of my body were misaligned and were trying to come back together. My head was foggy for several minutes, despite normally waking with an alert clarity about the day ahead and my work in it. (This is a pattern from my own youth, when all the kids in our large family held morning newspaper delivery routes. We woke up at 5:30 a.m. and we got to work. No questions asked.) My toes and my nose were cold – I ought to have accepted the stocking cap that was offered by Covenant House staff – and my hair when I looked in the mirror in the locker room in the morning was scraggly. I was dehydrated, being hesitant to drink as much water as I normally do since I didn’t want to walk through the night to the bathroom. All of this, after “sleeping out” for a grand total of five hours, during an unseasonably warm November night.