A look at United We Sleep 2019

I was talking with a friend of mine (let’s call him “Andy”) the other day and he told me that my sales pitch for our sleep out needs a little work. Well, needless to say, I was a little bit dismayed, so I asked him what he meant, and he said “Mike, when you first asked me to participate in the sleep out you said something like this: Andy, how would you like to sleep out with me in a cardboard box in front of the Community College this September. It usually rains and is generally pretty cold. The cars are noisy and the food I serve at the event is bad. But you will be doing it for a good cause, and you’ll learn a lot. So, what do you say?” I admitted to Andy that this is, in fact, my sales pitch, but perhaps I should refine it a little and include some details about the event.

At the same time, this has also been an interesting month for me on social media around the sleep out. I’ve had several people comment on our promotional video that everybody looks like they are having a good time and felt that the event somehow even belittled what it means to be homeless. This has really taken me aback, as the intent couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of the pictures from the event do have people smiling in them, however that’s of course because any time you point a camera as somebody, their instinct is to smile. However, the event is truly a serious one with a real mission to educate and create awareness, and to do so in a way which helps touch people in a place that matters most; namely, their hearts.

These two observations, Andy’s suggestions that I refine my pitch, and others feeling that the event makes light of a serious issue, led me to the conclusion that I should share with you a little bit about the event and how it works.

After people arrive in the late afternoon, we will be starting out with something called a privilege walk. For those who have never participated in one, it’s an impactful way of demonstrating to each of us that some of us have a great head start on life, and others have many challenges to overcome. That is obvious to most people, but what’s not obvious to many of us is where we fit in on this spectrum. For example, people raised having to learn English as a second language, people who’s parents didn’t graduate from high school, people who have substance use disorders in their families, and people who have experienced childhood trauma, are FAR MORE LIKELY to be challenged in later life, experience homelessness and economic instability. This exercise, from the outset of the event, makes it personal for all of us.

After the privilege walk, we will hear from several individuals who have experienced housing insecurity and homelessness and have overcome these obstacles. What always seems to come out of these presentations is that all of us are just one life event away from this type of situation. With Americans on average having next to no savings and the costs of things like food, utilities, rent, and childcare, it’s clear that it doesn’t take a lot to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Next we will have supper. OK, I’m going to admit that this is not bad. My wife always donates her time to make us a nice chicken soup, and she does make the best one around. However, if you want more than soup, all you’re going to get is a bologna sandwich or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread.

After supper, we will break into smaller groups for discussions with experts from the community on a variety of topics. By now it’s pitch black and getting cold. The conversations this year will focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences, in a panel facilitated by Public Health, Greater Nashua Mental Health, and Bridges Domestic and Sexual Violence. There will be a second panel discussing Housing Models facilitated by Neighborworks, Habitat for Humanity, and Family Promise. Lastly, there will be a discussion focused on Food Security facilitated by the Nashua Soup Kitchen and End 68 Hours of Hunger. Each of these conversations lasts about 40 minutes, so for a good 2 hours participants are learning from experts and one another about important aspects of homelessness.

After the panel discussions, somewhere around 10 pm, people will get their box and set up to hunker down for the night. We encourage people not to bring any kind of change of clothes and not to bring a pillow. Just a blanket or sleeping bag. This year, we’ve also prepared a bedtime exercise where people will be asked to do an online poverty simulation before going to sleep. The simulation takes people through the many tradeoffs which exist in real life. For example, what if you are on a limited income and need to decide whether to pay the rent or not, and your car breaks down or your dog gets sick or you lose your job. These things happen, and what a person does decides to do and what tradeoffs to make can be real dealbreakers.

In the morning, over a breakfast of black coffee, orange “drink,” and more peanut butter and jelly, we will do a group exercise where each and every participant is asked to reflect on the one thing that they can do themselves in the coming year to make a difference. We want people to come away with a sense that they can make a difference and a commitment to make the community a better place. Each of us can do that, and if all of us do that, imagine what an impact we would have!

I hope you will consider joining us. I invite those of you who are skeptical to join the conversation. I invite those of you who want to make a difference to help us to have a louder voice. I invite those of you who simply believe that you cannot possibly sleep outside on the ground in a box, in the rain and cold, to take a leap of faith. Together we can all do something, because GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WE LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.