Tent city highlights cold, hard truth of homelessness

Andrew Sheeler/Sun Star Reporter
Nov. 15, 2011

This week, more than a dozen students brave bitter cold and curious glances to camp out in Constitution Plaza outside Constitution Hall. For seven full days, these students will stay outside not to Occupy but enlighten. The UAF Honors Student Council sponsors the event, which is part of National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week.

Blake Eggemeyer, a senior studying computer science, organized the event, which began Nov. 13. This is the fourth year the Honors Student Council put on the event, which Eggemeyer dubbed “the tent city.”

Eggemeyer has at least a dozen people willing to take part, he said, but they won’t be doing it all at once. Instead, participants will be staggered throughout the week to ensure that there are at least three people at the encampment at all times. While the campers will have tents and sleeping bags, cold remains an omnipresent concern. Eggemeyer remembers two years ago, when students woke up on the last day to a temperature of 27 below.

There are people who step in and give the students a break. Eggemeyer and the other tent city students are grateful for the occasional strangers who walk up and offer to relieve them of their vigil for a while. After all, the semester doesn’t stop for the tent city volunteers just because they’re standing outside for a cause.

“We still need to go to class, we still need to go to work, we still need to do homework and we need to go in and warm up our feet,” Eggemeyer said.

The number of people who are homeless varies depending on the definition used to describe them, Eggemeyer said. Many homeless people are transient, such as young families temporarily without shelter. For these families, often they’ll find a home and never be homeless again, he said. Even among the chronically homeless, causes for the condition vary. Eggemeyer hopes to use this week for dispelling myths and “hopefully modifying people’s views about what homelessness is, its causes and what homeless people might need.”

This marks the second year that the Honors Student Council is collecting donations for Street Outreach & Advocacy Program (SOAP). Last year, students raised $1,300 for the program, according to Eggemeyer.

“This is first organization we’ve donated to twice,” he said. The money raised for SOAP, which has been around since 2006,  helps the program buy high quality food for its clients. SOAP serves youth aged 10 to 21 who are either homeless or at risk to become homeless.

In addition to food, youth can come to the program’s 7th Avenue office to do laundry, search for a job online, watch movies or play games, according to Seth Hawkins, a youth advocate for SOAP.

“There’s always a game of chess going on,” Hawkins said.

Client traffic varies with the seasons. In the summer, SOAP sees larger numbers of youths but the warm temperatures make them “ephemeral,” wandering in and out as they please. In the freezing winter months, the overall number of clients drops but they stick around much longer.

SOAP isn’t equipped to house clients, Hawkins said. Because of this and a fear of the rescue mission, homeless youth are forced to alter their schedules. At night, to keep warm they’ll go to Wal-Mart or Safeway and just walk the aisles. During the day, they’ll visit places like SOAP and nap when and where they can. Hawkins said that as of October, there are an estimated 214 homeless youth aged 10 to 21 in Fairbanks.

Hawkins doesn’t see many UAF students at SOAP, he said, but with an age cut-off of 21, many UAF students would qualify for services there if needed. SOAP has a radio show on KSUA every Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

“Our obvious obstacle is the cold. However, just standing outside is not going to accomplish anything, so apathy is another obstacle,” Eggemeyer said. Most students just walk by the tent city. Of the students who do approach, reactions vary.

“We have a lot of people say we’re crazy, we have a lot of people say we’re crazy but in a more gung-ho kind of way,” he said.

 

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