I grew up in a Southern Baptist Preacher’s home. In this setting I was often exposed to extreme need and despair. I recall on many occasions my father being out all hours of the night helping those who couldn’t help themselves. His heart was enormous and I would sit at the top of the stairs late at night or early the following morning and listen to him tell my mother the stories. I would hear the concern in his voice, knowing he did all he could.
I suppose it’s not surprising that I developed a deep empathy for those who struggled more and had less than me. I knew it was more complicated than: I worked hard and they didn’t. I knew judging the exterior of a person was not the true answer to their blight (or prosperity).
To this day, I can’t live in ignorance or delusion. I know better. I was raised to know better.
Last night, I participated in a simulation. Along with twenty-one others I spent the night outside, no tent, no heaters, in negative five degree freezing conditions. We had a simple but powerful ask: give money and raise awareness so homeless youth can come in out of the cold.
It was actually easy for me to accept this challenge. I’ve done plenty of cold-weather camping. I’m no stranger to physical suffering, on occasion I’ve even invited it. I believe pain pushes me to be more than I already am.
September and October had left me totally spent with especially long work days and working through the weekends five weeks in a row. I knew about the approaching event but had found no time to sit down and ask folks to help me raise money. I contemplated bailing on the event due to my lack of fundraising. Two nights before we were scheduled to sleep outside I asked the coordinator and Executive Director of Urban Peak if I could raise the five-hundred dollar minimum after the event. She agreed and even invited me to help prep all the participants for the freezing conditions.
I wrote an article on what to wear for extremely low temperatures. She referred to me as our mountaineering expert and I revealed in the title. My thoughts were all very focused on the cold and keeping everyone safe [from the weather].
On Wednesday, a day before the event, I was walking through Bear Creek Dog Park with my wife, Erika, and she uncovered her freezing face to express her concern for my sleeping out all night. She jokingly asked, “Are you planning to get drunk so you don’t feel the cold?”
In a moment, my heart dropped. They drink to numb the pain, I thought. They drink because one night it got so cold drinking was the only thing that got them through the night.
Damn, you’re foolish, Musick, I thought. Every time you passed a sleeping homeless person in the park on a sunny day with a blanket over his/her head you assumed he/she was lazy and should be taking advantage of the day and looking for work. Not once did you think maybe he/she was awake all night because it was bloody cold.
As soon as I got back from the frigid dog park I posted a link to my donor page, one day before we spent the night outside. I admit, I didn’t expect to raise five hundred dollars before the next evening. I pitched the idea of wanting a drink on a cold night and asked my friends to “Buy Me a Figurative Drink”. Several people played along.
Then more, and more.
People I know from so many settings began sharing the link. In two hours I (we) had raised two-hundred-dollars. By eight o’clock that evening after a big donation and lots of small ones (all appreciated equally) I had raised eight-hundred-and-ten dollars.
I couldn’t believe it. I felt so small-minded.
People seemed distilled by the idea of just how cold it was and that the event hadn’t been canceled. I think the extreme weather had everyone rethinking their [comfortable] position in life. They kept giving, sharing and commenting.
I walked into the First United Methodist Church in downtown Colorado Springs where the Night Out for Homeless Youth event was being hosted on Thursday evening having raised over a thousand dollars in less than two days. I knew, without a doubt, this was important and I needed to be here.
Surprise generosity and care showered the next three hours before we actually moved outside. News crews were buzzing the location. Two stations were reporting live on-scene at the event and it was the local headline of several news stations that night. Volunteers were bringing food, warm clothes, coffee, donations. The energy was spectacular with the lingering scent of awareness in the cold air.
The participants seemed nervous. You could feel anxiety in the conversations. I think everyone doubted in some way they could complete the challenge. That in itself served as a powerful reality for those who have no choice in the matter. Homelessness is not a state of convenience.
The local Whole Foods Market provided a soup dinner. Urban Peak presented some of the realities of youth homelessness. The harsh facts settled into our minds and hearts and we all bundled up to embark on our night.
Most everyone had a combinations of cardboard, tarps and sleeping bags strewn out on the ground in the parking look and lawn of the church. News stations were still rolling footage. Church-goers were exiting the building, asking questions about what we were doing.
My sweet wife, stopped by a little after 9pm and brought me some coffee, snacks and cardboard. She helped me set up and I kissed her and my baby daughter good night from a very different vantage point than usual. That reality was heavy. I shouldered it and let it sit there as they drove away, the Subaru tires crunching in the snow.
By 10pm most everyone was in their sleeping-bag-forts. A few were still walking across the street for the hot chocolate being served by a kind business owner who was supporting the event.
At 11pm the news stations had packed up and cleared out. The cocoa line was dying down and a couple of cardboard boxes even had snoring sounds rising up from them. Frost crystals were forming on the tops of sleeping bags, tarps and cardboard. I decided I should stop taking pictures and generally stalling and find my own bed for the night.
I chose a spot by myself against the wall of the church. I’m not certain what led me, but I didn’t want to be close to anyone. Didn’t want to share a tarp or cardboard. Maybe I didn’t want to share my experience, I’m not sure. I was alone in my head – there with my thoughts.
It took a while to get situated. I kept adjusting, pulling, tugging pieces of my “fort” into place. The ground was icy and everything kept sliding about. It was difficult to get into my sleeping bag without kicking the cardboard out from under me or the tarp flailing over me and out of reach. I had a cardboard box to put over my head but that too didn’t work as planned and I eventually ditched the effort and added it to the pieces under me.
When I was finally still I realized how powerfully strong my senses were. Every noise, distant and nearby seemed amplified. The freezing air touching the sliver of my exposed face was unbelievably harsh. I sucked the frigid air deep into my lungs and then turned my face down into my sleeping bag.
I tossed and turned. I pulled my right hand out of my glove and scrolled through the pictures I’d taken on my phone. I tried to reconnect with the inside world by posting an update to my friends who were supporting from their homes. My phone battery dropped from 71% to 59% to 21% in a matter of minutes. I knew it was the cold but somehow it made my heart drop, like I was losing contact with the world.
At 12:30am, after not being able to get comfortable and a weird crick in my neck, I dug my way out of my fort. I pulled on my boots and inspected the area. Volunteer security guards were chatting nearby. A local documentary photographer friend of mine was taking some final photos before he left. I went into the church bathroom and peed half a gallon of coffee and hot chocolate.
I contemplated not going back out, knowing I was in for a dreadful few hours. I acknowledged how much more difficult this was than I expected. I acknowledged my own mental weaknesses.
Around 1 or 1:30am I finally fell asleep. At 2:20am I awoke abruptly. I didn’t know where I was or why. I was so rattled I struggled out of my sleeping-bag-fort and walked until I calmed down. My eyes were burning from the cold and inability to rest. I went into the church bathroom again and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked horrifying. How, in a matter of hours, could I look so old and weathered? My eyes were bloodshot and the lines on my face were so deep and dramatic. I felt so “off”, strangely, not myself at all, but rather some version of myself I didn’t recognize.
I charged my phone for a minute, took some more photos of everyone. I posted another quick update on my Facebook feed and begrudgingly stuffed myself back into my sleeping bag.
Around 3-something-am my tarp blew off me. I immediately thought someone was trying to mess with me. I looked around for as much as I could see and no one was there. Exhausted I lay my head back down without pulling the tarp back over me. The next thing I remember was the feeling of pinpricks to my nose. It was painful enough to wake me, thankfully. I removed my glove and felt my nose. It was like ice-crystals and hurt to the touch. I pulled my arms free of my sleeping back and situated the tarp that was now below my feet. I rebuilt the fort to it’s original design as best I could and snuggled back in, exhausted.
At 4:22am, I awoke to the sound of a car and voices in the distance. I immediately noticed I couldn’t feel my duffle bag that had been placed directly next to me. I moved my legs in my sleeping bag to feel for the bag and it wasn’t there. Oddly this freaked me out and I tore out of my fort frantically thinking the bag of personal belongings had been stolen.
It had merely slid away from me on the frozen ground but was still there. I pulled it back to my side and covered my head back up. I lay there quietly thinking how that bag could hold all I own in this life. The harsh reality was so strong it was deafening at this point.
I didn’t fall back asleep form 4:30am-5am. I just lay there on the frozen ground listening and pondering. There was a cadet in a camouflaged bivy on the sidewalk not far from me. I wondered what his story was. A couple, I knew from the community, were in a cardboard box fort just beyond that and I wondered what they were thinking.
One thing that stunned me the most was how quickly I became defensive, reactive and on alert. I felt so vulnerable and unsafe. I felt threatened and as though no one would protect me other than myself. It was apparent this was so much more than freezing temperatures and all my preparation had been superficial in comparison to what I experienced.
I found my way back into the church with all the others around 5am. I was quiet and fairly removed. A videographer pulled me aside and asked me a few questions. My emotions were raw and brazen, yet humble and heartbroken too.
The event was over so rapidly. It felt too long and still so brief, but a glimpse into the seriousness of this social problem.
I was home by 6am. Erika was awake and the fire was crackling downstairs. Our home had never felt so good. I didn’t notice the clutter or dishes, but only felt the warmth and security.
How can we ever, ever ridicule those in our community without a home, a job, a family? We have less than no idea what their daily, hourly reality is. We simply don’t understand. I walked away from my frozen cardboard bed hyper-aware of how big and important the knowledge I gained was.
We must share in our many kinds of wealth and cease to judge the exterior of our brothers and sisters living on the street. I know there’s not a simple, easy solution. I also know the power of a community who can put differences aside is a force to be reckoned.
Tonight I don’t care if you like the gays or hate the gays. I don’t care if you are pro-life or pro-choice. I don’t care if you’re white, black, brown or purple because before that shit even matters we need to take care of basic human need. Food and shelter should not be what people in our community wake up wondering how and when they’ll find. Kids should never go to school hoping the kid in the desk next to them doesn’t smell them or notice they’ve worn the same clothes three days in a row.
Basic human need, let’s start there.
Such deep, transforming gratitude to all my friends who gave, shared, and supported The Night Out For Homeless Youth in a number of ways. I’m moved beyond my ability to express how blessed I am by your actions. I believe this community, yes THIS community, as torn as it sometimes feels, can end homelessness. I commit to work alongside organizations to this end.
Join me, give as much as you can and don’t judge yourself – your gift is beautiful and powerful. You can give here. See photos of the event here or here.