Teens experience night of homelessness

by Deacon Tom Picciano
SUN contributing writer

JOHNSON CITY — It got pretty chilly in the parking lot at St. James on Friday, Sept. 25. But the 37 degree temperature didn’t deter more than three dozen teens plus their chaperones from spending a “Night in a Box” right on the pavement. The purpose: to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness in the community.

Duct tape held together large appliance boxes which offered at least some shelter to more than one person. Pieces of plastic were draped on some of the boxes. Sleeping bags were gathered next to each other for warmth.

“The kids were really moved by the experience, even to the point of tears.” said youth minister Bill Fitzpatrick. “Most didn’t realize that people in our community sleep under bridges and are homeless every night.“

This small, temporary city sprang up next to St. James, a fixture on busy main street for more than 100 years. The church is a couple of blocks from what is now a distressed downtown business district and in front of abandoned shoe factories. When the parish hosted a regional food giveaway in the same parking lot in recent months, hundreds of people lined up to be served.

In the hours the youth were there, more than $500 was collected for local charities, 4 barrels were filled with food, and 100 bags of clothing were collected. There was also time to put together 100 personal care kits each packed filled with toiletries and chewing gum stuffed into a pair of socks.

“People really need to be aware of homeless people” said 17-year-old Daniel Esworthy.  As for the night in the cold, he said, “there wasn’t a hard part.” Esworthy said it will make him feel differently when he sees homeless people on the street in the future ”I’ve always felt bad for them. Now I’ll go out of my way to help them.” He plans to take some money from paychecks to help buy food and donate to the cause.

“Even though we may not see the homeless in our area like we would in New York City,“ said Fitzpatrick, “They are still there and we need to address the situation.” And that offered a lesson in social justice for the young people “Ultimately I wanted them to understand that it’s only by the grace of God that they are the ones collecting food to be given out instead of the ones who are handed the food so that they can eat,” said Fitzpatrick

Cars passed by and occupants looked at the odd assortment of boxes scattered around the parking lot. There had been some concern raised due to comments on a local website before the event. One suggested people would come out and “rough up” the teens after the bars closed. That spurred Susan Baloga and her husband to attend.

“I am happy to be able to say that the evening was peaceful. I later realized that there was actually some value in the initially upsetting comments,” Baloga said, “What they threatened is what homeless people actually have to deal with and I think contributed to making the experience more realistic. We were thankful to have made it through the night without incident, as the homeless must feel every morning when they awake.”

The participants viewed a movie on a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. They also got a real-life account of where homeless people live in the Broome County area. When morning came, Father Christopher Celentano celebrated Mass before they went home.

The “Night in a Box” was a real faith lesson for Daniel Esworthy, a high school junior. “We should all strive to help one another. The homeless are the closest to Jesus. So by helping them, it builds our faith in Jesus,” he said.

“I can only pray that the one night that I spent out in the cold will not just be a momentary discomfort I want to believe that it will be a life-changing event in my life,” said Deborah Fitzpatrick. “As one of the adult chaperones for ‘Night in the Box.’ I found that I have deep concern for the children that are truly homeless. As I sat awake that night looking at the boxes knowing they were full of children, I could not help but think about how very sad this all is!”

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