On any given night 1,000 people in Erie County experience homelessness. On a cold night in November that number increased by 20 as students from Immaculata Academy took part in the 11th annual Homeless Hangout behind the Hamburg school.
For 12 hours, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., Nov. 22-23, members of the Immaculata Franciscan Club slept outside in temperatures that dipped below freezing, using cardboard boxes, tarps and duct tape to construct shelters that did little to keep the weather at bay. The girls, dressed in sweatpants and hoodies, huddled up with one another to keep warm. Creature comforts such as cell phones, DVD players and iPods were not allowed. Crackers, bread and warm chili, all provided through donations, were served in soup kitchen-fashion to the participants.
"It was really eye opening because you hear about the homeless in the city sleeping outside in boxes, but you don't really get the full concept until you do it yourself," said Allyson Massini, 17. "It was really eye opening to think that people go through this every day and they sleep out there every night. It started hailing on us."
Diaconal candidate Steve Schumer from Little Portion Friary came over to share about his ministry and what he has learned from the people he met. Located in downtown Buffalo, Little Portion Friary is a collective that houses, feeds and advocates for the homeless.
The following morning the girls were in good spirits. Most took part to be with friends and to understand the experience of people less fortunate than themselves.
"If this actually happened to us and we had to stay out there for more than one night I would get scared," said Claire Ciezki, 14. "It would be really cold. If it hailed even more, we could get hurt. If it got windy, we could get really sick. And if we had no money to go to the hospital, it just wouldn't turn out well. That happens to a lot of people and that's not good. They don't have any money to support themselves."
The teens raised $550 through pledges that will go to one of the lunch ladies, Mrs. Horvath, whose house burned down recently.
"You never know what could happen in the next six months or the next couple of years," said Shelby Whalen, 14. "Anything can happen really. You can lose family or money. An experience like this is to know what is expected if anything ever did happen like this. I think (participating in the Homeless Hangout) was a good choice to do."
"I think it was worthwhile," agreed Ciezki. "A lot of people didn't come because it's too cold, but it was an experience and it's good to know. Now if you see a homeless person you've got to help out. You know it could have been us. It could happen to anyone."
Immaculata Academy, a private, Catholic, college-preparatory high school, is dedicated to educating young women based on Franciscan values. With a family spirit, the goal for each student is that she maximize her potential academically, spiritually and personally, so as to be an instrument of positive change in society.