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Why I chose to sleep on the street

jeudi 27 avril 2017   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Shahnaz Radjy
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Shahnaz Radjy graduated from LGB in 2000, and went on to study health and communications. After living and working in New York City for several years, Shahnaz and her husband François quit their jobs and embarked on a world tour, visiting and volunteering for all kinds of sustainable farming projects. Just before leaving NYC, Shahnaz participated in the Sleep Out Campaign, spending one night sleeping outside in the City to raise money for homeless youth. Here's her story.

On March 18, 2016, I was homeless.

I slept on the street in New York City as part of a campaign by Covenant House to raise awareness and funds for youth homelessness. I had two cardboard boxes to use as insulation, a sleeping bag, and quite a few layers on to try and ignore the cold. What separated me from so many other people sleeping on the streets every night was that I had a choice.

One of the reasons I made that choice goes back to my experiences at the International School of Geneva, a diverse melting pot where I learned about different cultures, about empathy and supporting causes with passion. To borrow Gandhi’s words, I learned to “be the change I wanted to see in the world.”

Unlike the 3.5 million people who experience homelessness in a given year in the United States – of which 40% are under 18 – I have a home and a job. I would attribute my having a home and a job to my education, but a degree actually offers little protection: approximately 60% of homeless men and 49% of homeless women are high school graduates, and almost 5% have college degrees.

Why do this?

The Young Professional Sleep Out campaign is an annual effort. In 2016, it took place across eight cities across the United States. The conditions we slept out in were the best possible. We raised over $1 million for the organization, which is enough for all the kids in their program – who are between 17 and 21 years old, have aged out of the foster care system, and need a little help to get back on their feet – to participate in job skills training. It’s amazing what one small “sacrifice” can accomplish.

But the greatest success of this initiative is that it creates a bond between young professionals and Covenant House. Some participants were there for the fourth year in a row, and others were going the extra mile and running a half marathon on behalf of the organization just 24 hours after they emerged from their sleeping bags.

Why these young professionals became homeless for a night is as fascinating as their reasons were diverse. An 11th grade teacher noticed a boy fell asleep in her history class, and when she asked him what was going on he admitted to being homeless. It turns out about 20% of students in New York are homeless at any given time. She wanted to understand more about how that could happen and what it might feel like.

Another young man from a relatively well-off family was there to try and grasp what his brother had been through when he got back from the Navy and ended up as a homeless veteran through a string of unlucky circumstances.

One brave woman was even there with her big belly making it clear she had brought a +1 to the event; and another girl was there to continue the tradition of supporting Covenant House started by her mother when she was little, reassured that there was somewhere for her to go in case the unimaginable happened and things went terribly wrong. No matter what the backstory was, each of us wanted to step outside our comfort zone and get a mere taste of what so many people experience, be it for a day or for several years.

Some of the “kids” shared their stories with us. They came from homes full of mental health issues, domestic violence, or perhaps just a belief that at some point children had to be put out and left to fend for themselves. It was inspiring to hear about how hard they were working to get their high school diplomas so they could become policewomen, chefs, and actors. And they were funny! Resilient to their core, thankful yet somewhat confused as to why any of us would willingly sleep on the street when they fought to avoid it at all costs.

 

A night outside alone

I was a minority, having chosen to sign up for the Sleep Out by myself instead of trying to rally a team of friends or co-workers to do it with me. It felt only fair, given the solitude homeless individuals feel – which often extends to a feeling of invisibility, as one young man confided to a friend of mine a few months prior. (This friend is the kind of person to stop on his way home from work to ask the homeless person he has seen a few times near his apartment how he is and whether he needs an extra sweater – yes, people like that exist!)

Doing this alone gave me time to reflect, observe, and realize that even a few hours of homelessness-by-choice puts things in perspective; more so than expected. As we walked from the Times Center – where the welcome and introductory program was organized – to Covenant House, I smelled a faint odour of steak. I was not technically hungry, but the smell caught me by surprise as I stepped out into the wind, mentally preparing to spend the night outside, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the steak I wasn’t going to eat.

A block later, I noticed everyone had naturally herded themselves into small groups, latching onto human connection to help grapple with the idea of sleeping outside. Yet the homeless people we walked by, curled up under mismatched coats and layers of blankets, were all alone.

I am lucky enough to sleep easily almost anywhere. The concrete – thanks to the building sheltering me from the wind, the cardboard serving as insulation, the sleeping bag, and all my layers – was no exception. My only miscalculation was to take off my shoes, which made my feet the least protected part of my body. They felt every bit of the cold and woke me up at 4am, at which point I used the legwarmers I had packed as extra socks.

At 5.30am, a ripple of people woke up and headed back inside for breakfast (like I said, we had the best possible conditions). We stretched and shared our experiences and take-aways before we all faded back into our comfortable lives. One woman who was there for the third year in a row, admitted to getting up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and not wanting to go back out into the cold, bringing her face to face with the whole point of the exercise: she, at least, had a choice.

And now?

Over a year has gone by since the Sleep Out. After that single night out on the streets, I went back to my warm apartment, my husband, my job, my life (well, almost). Was I a changed person? I certainly walked away with a newfound respect for people battling homelessness, and for the people and organizations like Covenant House who work to change their lives.

The experience also made me appreciate my luck even more than usual, and reinforced the decision I had made with my husband to quit our jobs and travel around the world to learn about sustainable farming.

But that is a whole other story.

 

Shahnaz blogs regularly at www.farmaventure.com
Follow Shahnaz on Twitter: @sradjy
Email her at sradjy@gmail.com

Comments...

Stig Rossen says...
Posted samedi 6 mai 2017
I was very touched by reading this. I live downtown Geneva (place des eaux vives) and there are some homeless people in front of the UBS ( a son and a mother) and the neighborhood is trying to help. It's very sad and they not want any help . Take good care Stig ps how did you fund your trip around the world ?
Stig Rossen says...
Posted samedi 6 mai 2017
I was very touched by reading this. I live downtown Geneva (place des eaux vives) and there are some homeless people in front of the UBS ( a son and a mother) and the neighborhood is trying to help. It's very sad and they not want any help . Take good care Stig ps how did you fund your trip around the world ?

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