Youths gathered Thursday at the State Fairgrounds to get a glimpse of what homeless families face every night.
As the sun set, the orange-tinted clouds turned dark and a nearly full moon rose, hundreds of gathering teens hardly noticed the biting chill of a Minnesota late October night as they readied the only shelters they had for the night -- cardboard boxes.
But eventually, fingers and toes would sting with the cold and their glimpse of homelessness would become real. But only for a night.
About 675 youths and their chaperones built a cardboard-box city Thursday at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds as part of an annual event organized to raise awareness about homelessness and money to support programs run by Families Moving Forward in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Area Council of Churches' Project Home.
"It just gives them a small window into what this might be like to sleep out on the street and not have a place to go to get warm," said Sara Liegl, Project Home director.
But as they duct-taped boxes together, threw footballs and sipped hot chocolate while music blasted from speakers, most of the kids knew their homeless night out was nothing like the real thing. A group of the event's veterans wore blaze orange, insulated hunting jackets and overalls. Warm winter coats and mounds of blankets were tucked alongside sleeping bags. A few slipped on Ugg boots. Many more wore stocking caps that usually don't come out until the snow flies.
And, "we have bathrooms over there," said John Chancellor, a 12-year-old from Robbinsdale.
"And [homeless people] don't get unlimited hot chocolate through the night when they get cold," said 13-year-old Nathan Pinter of Rogers.
"We're doing this for fun," said Dylan Feske, a 19-year-old volunteer with a youth group from Epworth United Methodist Church in St. Paul. "[The homeless] do it to survive. The night out will give [these kids] an experience as close to homelessness as they want to get."
Sixteen-year-old Emanuel Rodriguez of Inver Grove Heights didn't really want to be there. "My older sister told me I should," he said.
His older sister, Leilani, was a volunteer helping to organize the event. "I really want him to learn what other people go through every day and appreciate what we often take for granted living at home," she said.
Creating shelters from cardboard boxes became a creative adventure. Sixteen-year-old Josie Stepan of Hastings and four friends created a sleeping-quarter tunnel from four boxes that were taped together. Twelve-year-old Abbey Zieska of Golden Valley and her friends folded each of their boxes into triangular tent-like shapes, betting that small and cozy would be warmer.
But Feske and his group went big: Five-layer boxes taped and partitioned into a three-room shelter, allowing for separate accommodations for the girls and boys. "It's a luxury staying here on the fairgrounds," Feske's younger brother, Mitchell, said. "We're not having to sleep under a bridge or in a corner of an alley."
The Wilder Foundation estimates that 13,100 people are homeless in Minnesota on any given night, with families making up about a third of those without a home. In the Twin Cities, the number of homeless in 2009 jumped by 20 percent from 2006, said Greg Owen, project director at the Wilder Foundation. That increase is startling because the numbers of homeless people had been leveling off before the economy went into the tank, he said.
Project Home, which takes in the overflow from Ramsey County's family homeless shelter in Maplewood, provides 40 to 60 beds each night with the help of 70 east metro congregations. Last year, the number of homeless families using Project Home's emergency shelter was up 41 percent from three years ago, higher than a national 30 percent increase in homeless families during the same period. "That's pretty dramatic," Liegl said.
At the fairgrounds, a mock soup kitchen gave the youths "an inkling of what it's like to be hungry at suppertime and have to stand in line with a few hundred other people to get a little cup of soup and a slice of bread," Liegl said. "They wake up in the morning saying they had no clue how cold it was going to get and or how hungry they were going to get."
Families Moving Forward and Project Home launched the first cardboard-box overnight three years ago, attracting 400 participants and raising more than $10,000, Liegl said. Last year, 550 people registered for the night out but only 400 showed up because it was a cold, rainy night. Even so, they raised more than $12,000 for homeless programs.
After participants fold up their blankets and tear down their boxes on Friday, Liegl hopes some will be inspired to help the homeless throughout the year with food or diaper drives or other fundraising events.
"It's about helping them make connections," Liegl said. "We want to give them avenues to make a difference."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788