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April 23, 2012

A Night Without a Home

Union College draws awareness to homeless

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff writer

For a homeless person, there’s never a good night’s sleep.

To them, “Home Sweet Home” is usually a large cardboard box. They eat whatever they have, or can find.

Oftentimes, the area around them is a noisy street or highway. It can also be violent, whether it be screams from other homeless people nearby, or from strangers walking in the neighborhood, or a passing vehicle.  It may have been days since they had a hot meal, or a hot shower.

And then there’s the outdoors itself. Fighting bitter cold, extreme heat, and drenching rains become a part of the lifestyle for a person who’s life becomes one of moving, surviving — and hopelessness.

To get the feel of what it’s like being down on your luck for one night, several persons lived in cardboard boxes near the gazebo at Ramsey Circle on the Union College campus in Barbourville Friday. The event, called “A Night Without A Home,” began at 6 p.m. Friday and ended at 6 a.m. this morning. Sponsored by several community and religious groups in the region, it gave people a chance to experience what homeless people go through, and to draw attention to their plight.

The forecast called for rain and thunderstorms, especially during the overnight, when that lonely, desperate feeling of despair really kicks in.

Which is what Tiffany Smith of Corbin wanted to experience.

There’s is a stereotype about homeless people. Some say they’re ignorant, lazy, have no ambition, that they live out of bags and boxes, and that all they want is money or attention. But you don’t know how they got that way. Homelessness does not discriminate,” said Smith, a junior at Eastern Kentucky University majoring in psychology.

Smith crawled inside the cardboard box that would be her home for the night. Just a few feet away, traffic roared down the street and people took a stroll on the sidewalk, enjoying the warm weather Friday evening. Within minutes she gave a look of reflection — and uncertainty — that’s common to those whose lives center around a piece of cardboard.

It was the kind of reflection Deborah D. Napier wanted from those participating.

“I can tell you this. There are more homeless people out there than you think. No one is immune. We’ve had people with college degrees, and those who can’t read or write. For all of them, something happens where they end up with nowhere to go,” noted Napier, a Build Corps/AmeriCorps member serving at the KCEOC Women’s Emergency Center in Gray.

Build Corps/AmeriCorps and KCEOC Community Action Partnerships were among the organizations sponsoring the event.

She told The Times-Tribune the AmeriCorps program members serve the community for at least 1,700 hours for one year.

“At the center, we help over 100 women and children a year. Usually they come to the center because they are evicted, or they live in vehicles or outside. Many are there because of domestic violence, or economic hardships, or other reasons.”

During the program before the camp out began, several speakers talked about their roles in helping the homeless. A couple of them went one step closer, because they were homeless themselves. In one woman’s case, it wasn’t about losing a job or being down on their luck, but the situations around her.

“I was homeless for 18 months. I was homeless because I chose to. That’s because every environment I was in was negative. I was in an abusive relationship, and there were no positive influences at all. During that time, I read a book that tied in with my homelessness. And right now, I believe that was a good thing for me, because I was free. I was no longer bound by someone’s negative energy,” stated Gina Jones, an author, songwriter and a Corbin native who now lives in Barbourville.

Jones also camped out with the others participating, to draw attention to what a night without decent shelter, food and a bathroom and support from loved ones can do to a person.

The experience Friday night also fueled her fire to write about the wrongs the homeless face.  

“I’m already getting started on writing a book focusing on how people in high positions can manipulate people who are poor, by using them and their poverty to increase their wealth,” said Jones.

Some 13 years ago, James Helton was also homeless.

“I was living in a storage building, and wherever I could. I had been living a fast lifestyle then. That all changed because I paid for that lifestyle. Being homeless is not an easy way to live. You can be robbed, you can be beat up. The homeless community is a pretty rough community, because they have nothing else in life. You have nothing. And the one thing you really don’t have is hope,” said Helton, now Pastor of River’s Edge Church in Corbin.

The church’s youth group helped to provide entertainment at the event with music and a puppet show for children. In addition, River’s Edge joined with two other religious groups – “Everlasting Arms” from Corbin and the “Under His Wings” ministry from Pineville — to feed those attending.

Helton added his church plans to be involved in a homeless shelter in Corbin, while Everlasting Arms will open up a shelter soon, when space becomes available.

Other persons and groups participating in the event included Union College, Becky Deaton of Hazard-Perry County Community Ministries, Megan Havicus of Beattyville Housing and Development Corporation, Inc., and April Bennett of Partnership Housing, Inc.

While the turnout was small around 6 p.m., attendance began to pick up during the evening, and was expected to peak before bedtime.

Addressing those present during the program, Napier told them, “Although a single night outside cannot simulate what it’s like to be homeless, it does promote awareness, discussion, advocacy, protests, and education.”

In discussing Friday night’s camp out, Mary Manns of River’s Edge Church said in a telephone interview, “A lot of people don’t know there are homeless people in the Tri-County area. This is why we’re doing it. And if it rains, it will be more realistic.”

Before leaving Richmond and EKU, Smith tried to get her friends and classmates to join in.

“I tried to get them at school to make the trip down, but most of them told me, ‘You know, it’s Friday night.’ Still, I just hope this reaches people, and gives them an understanding that it could happen to them. In a heartbeat it could happen.”

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