Have you ever wondered about being homeless?

Personal story. About 2 years ago my mother-in-law got really sick and my wife had to go abroad to take care of her. What started out as an anticipated visit of 2 or 3 weeks ended up becoming a 7-month ordeal for our family. My wife left Nashua just before Thanksgiving and couldn’t return until June. This is potentially one of those life-altering family events that could end up making a family homeless. We were lucky, though. Unlike the majority of Americans, we have a little bit of savings and were able to make it through on my income alone. However, many folks are dependent on 2 (or more) incomes to make ends meet. And the average American has no more than $400 in savings. That means that something much less traumatic than a 7-month ordeal…. An unexpected car breakdown…. An extra trip to the dentist for a cavity…. A plumbing leak…. A tick bite on your dog that leads to lyme disease…. Or any number of other normal occurrences could send a family down the road to be missing rent payments and becoming homeless. As I said, we were lucky, but nevertheless the experience really brought into focus for us as a family how these situations can go from bad to REALLY bad in a very short amount of time.

This all begs the question, “have you ever wondered about how a person can become homeless, what happens to them psychologically and physically while they are experiencing homelessness, and how they can break out of the cycle and get back on their feet?” My grandfather, who grew up during the Great Depression, used to tell me to be cautious when people give the advice that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps. After all, if you really try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, invariably you are going to fall right back down. Sometimes you need a little bit of help.

At United Way, for the past 3 years, we have sponsored an event at the end of September called “United We Sleep to End Hunger and Homelessness.” I often tell people that this could very well be the worst invitation you ever get… an invitation from Mike (that’s me) to sleep in a cardboard box, quite possibly in the rain, without creature comforts, and in one of Nashua’s busiest locations, in front of the Community College on Amherst Street. Why would you take me up on this invitation? What’s in it for you, and what’s in it for the community? The answer is that this event, which is also a fundraiser, is a unique way for you to learn from experts about the core issues related to homelessness: affordable housing, behavioral health, substance use disorder, employment security, youth homelessness, human trafficking, as well as the models and systems which exist to break the cycle of homelessness. You learn from experts in the community about all these issues as well as from people in the community who have experienced these issues and succeeded in breaking out of the cycle. Additionally, you will then have the opportunity to sleep with us in your box. You will probably be a little hungry, a little cold, a little bit scared, and a little bit uncomfortable. To be honest, however, none of us comes away from this knowing what it’s like to be homeless. But the experience is nevertheless eye opening and humbling.

To participate, you will need to also do a little bit of fundraising, which you do so by signing up online and asking some of your friends, families, and colleagues to sponsor you. All of the money we raise supports the United Way Community Impact Fund, which is a fund that makes grants to the local organizations which make up our safety net and runs programs in our community like transitional housing, youth food programs, and dental access, that help to ensure that nobody becomes homeless and that those who do have a pathway out.

Over the past 3 years we’ve had over 200 participants in United We Sleep. Each of these people has helped make a difference and many are now involved with organizations such as Front Door Agency, Marguerites Place, or Family Promise as a direct result of their involvement. Would you like to participate this year? The event is on September 20th, and you can easily sign up at www.tinyurl.com/uws2019 – there is also more information at that site about the event. We’ve put together an amazing program, and so this is your official invitation. Please come LIVE UNITED with us and be a part of making GREAT THINGS HAPPEN!

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.