Students camp out for homelessness awareness

Spending the night on the Washington Ave. Bridge, students tried the homeless life.

Andy Mannix

While most students were pulling all-nighters last week to study for midterms – or at least celebrating the completion of them – Habitat for Humanity’s “Shantytown” participants were staying up doing something entirely different.

Shantytown is an annual event in which students voluntarily spend the night on the enclosed segment of the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge.

The purpose of the activity is to bring awareness and educate the community on the issue of homelessness, while at the same time give the participants a taste of what it’s like to live without a home, Kristina Spinti, Habitat for Humanity chapter president, said.

Eighteen students showed up for the event and created a small village of boxes and blankets that served as a setting for the night’s festivities.

Throughout the night, students made miniature houses out of graham crackers, played a “poverty simulation board game” and participated in a discussion about homelessness led by guest speaker Mike Davey, the organizing director at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Habitat for Humanity also held a food and clothing drive at Shantytown, though Spinti said she wasn’t sure where the items would be donated.

The dwellers of Shantytown embraced the confused pedestrian traffic by explaining

their cause to bridge goers, then extending an invitation for them to join in, or at least donate to the food and clothing drive.

They also offered bagels and coffee donated by Einstein Bros. Bagels, and the Espresso Royale café to the few homeless people passing by.

Heather Schwitalla, education chair member with Habitat for Humanity, was in charge of the majority of the planning for Shantytown.

Schwitalla said Shantytown is effective because it gets the attention of the community.

“It catches eyes and makes people think,” she said. “And it opens the door for people to learn more.”

Not all students, however, see the relevance of Shantytown.

Ben Drewelow, a political science senior, said he thinks the event falls a little short of its goal.

“I think it’s kind of a disingenuous way of dealing with the homeless problem,” Drewow said.

As Drewelow passed by Shantytown last fall, he said he was humored to see

participants playing cards and having fun with their friends – a distant scene from most people’s perception of the homeless.

“Sleeping outside for a night, maybe it’s intended to inspire some kids to do something about homelessness,” Drewelow said, “but really that’s not what homelessness is about.”

The issue of homelessness is usually a result of an agonizing struggle with a deeper issue, such as mental health or medical debt, Drewelow said. The act of being outside is just the end result, he said.

Spinti said Habitat for Humanity recognizes the activity does not recreate the life of a homeless person.

“We do realize we’re in this bridge, we have shelter,” she said.

The more important elements of the activity are to raise community awareness and educate people, she said.

Habitat for Humanity chose the Washington Avenue Bridge because of its central, visible location on campus, and because less people would be likely to come if they were to hold it outside, Spinti said.

The group had to get a permit to stay on the bridge overnight, Spinti said.

Six students stayed at Shantytown for the duration of the night, she said.

Homelessness in Minnesota

As the issue of homelessness perpetuates throughout the country, Minnesota is no exception.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Wilder Research Center, there are 7,717 homeless people in Minnesota.

However, the state is moving in a positive direction, Andrea Gage, outreach specialist at People Incorporated Homeless Service, said.

“Especially in the past year, a good number of people who have at least five years plus of homelessness under their belts have been moving into their own places,” she said. “From there, that has kinda reduced the number of people out on the streets.”

Gage attributes this success to key elements in plans such as Heading Home Hennepin, a 10-year plan designed to end homelessness in Hennepin County by 2016.

It’s important to focus on getting people into houses, and then focus on the underlying problems, she said.

While the issue might be on a positive track, homelessness is still apparent in Minnesota.

Spinti said she is hesitant to say homelessness will ever end.

“I feel like it will never be resolved because there is so much need out there,” she said.

Keeping the community aware that the issue exists, exemplified in Shantytown, is one way to improve it, she said.