Last Tuesday, Mississippi State University’s Holmes Cultural Diversity Center hosted the inaugural Sleep Out for the Homeless campaign in recognition of Unity Month, a series of events designed to explore diversity and inclusion.
In addition to raising awareness about the plight of the homeless, the event accepted donations of canned or non-perishable food items to donate to MSU’s Thrive Program, an organization committed to assisting students who are or were part of the foster care system, have lost both parents or have dealt with homelessness. The campaign was organized by the HCDC’s Assistant Director Timothy Hopkins, who was inspired by similar events at other colleges. Hopkins introduced the event by expressing his hope that students would leave with a better understanding of hunger and homelessness.
Before the event began, the campaign organizers placed cardboard signs, similar to the signs homeless people use, along the paths across the Drill Field. The signs displayed statistics concerning homelessness written in black marker, along with messages like "Who are we as human beings if we ignore the suffering of others?" The statistics stated homeless children are twice as likely to be sick and starving, and one in three homeless children suffer from a major mental disorder by the time they are eight.
Two guest speakers spoke to the attendees about their personal experience with homelessness. Dandria Swanigan, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coordinator for Safe Haven Incorporated located in Columbus, spoke first and addressed one of the statistics written on the cardboard signs that stated 16% of those experiencing homelessness are victims of domestic violence. Safe Haven is a shelter for those experiencing domestic violence and provides 24-hour crisis intervention, emergency shelter, counseling, advocacy and outreach education for those displaced due to violence and assault.
Swanigan illustrated she sees homelessness nearly every day at work, as most of the women she helps are homeless due to domestic violence.
"Homelessness and domestic violence go hand in hand," Swanigan said.
The second speaker was Jada Evans, a junior communication major at MSU, who experienced homelessness firsthand. Evans was kicked out of her house and told not to go live with any relatives. As a result, she was forced to spend around three months living in a small red 2014 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback, showering and brushing her teeth at the gym and doing her laundry at the laundromat. She kept her plight a secret, still going to work and hanging out with her friends.
"The only difference between me and them was that they got to go back home. My home was my car, and my bed was the backseat," Evans said.
After the speakers concluded the first part of the event, participants and organizers moved on to a series of activities designed to raise awareness about issues the homeless population may face. For the first activity, students were asked to scoop toothpaste back into the bottle after having squeezed it all out; the impossible task was meant to show how your words, once spoken, can never return or be withdrawn. Second, students were given a scenario in which they had 10 minutes to leave their house with a backpack as a suitcase and had to decide what to pack in the backpack. In the last activity, students were given a backpack, similar to the one they were supposed to pack, and shown its contents. Inside each bag were items someone experiencing homelessness may carry.
Erika Hayslett, a senior political science major who participated in the sleep out and the provided activities, was moved by what the program showed her.
"It’s shown me to be grateful for what you have, because there’s many people without anything, there’s people with nothing," Hayslett said. "We’re grateful to have somewhere to lay our heads at night and have a roof over our head. Even people that are in college, you never know what their living situation is or what they’re experiencing in life."