By Julie Muhlstein Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — Fun is usually the aim when kids get together for a sleepover. Pizza, movies and video games are often in the plans. Friday night was different, more enlightening than fun. Teens spent a night learning about homelessness.
They heard from speakers who help homeless people through their work, and listened as a 9-year-old described staying at an Everett shelter.
Most sobering of all, the teens temporarily assumed identities of homeless people looking for help.
“You’ll get a character card — a new life,” Leann Geiger, director of food bank services for Volunteers of America Western Washington, told the teens at Friday’s Camp-In to Fight Homelessness and Hunger.
Amberly Khamsaly, a 17-year-old from Sultan High School, was saddened when she looked at her character’s card. “She’s 27 years old, pregnant, unemployed, uses cocaine, and has a GED but no ID,” Khamsaly said. “I don’t know what to think. It makes me sad.”
Among other new identities were homeless veterans, parents living with children in cars, and people who had lost their jobs and housing.
“The idea is to bring high school students together to experience what it is to be homeless, what it is to be hungry, and help them become part of a solution,” said Sharon Paskewitz, the local VOA’s director of housing and transitional services. “We tried to give them as much experience as we can in a safe environment.”
The educational event was also a fundraiser. Students gathered pledges, “like a bowl-a-thon,” said Michelle Fogus, VOA communications and marketing manager. One teen raised $451, Fogus said.
Camp-In pledges totaled $2,823, said Kathleen Dale, VOA outreach manager. That money will support Volunteers of America food banks and the agency’s housing programs. The event was a first for the agency. Some of the students are part of the VOA’s Youth Action Team volunteer program.
Scavenger hunts are typical of slumber parties. The Camp-In had one, but with a twist. With their character cards, the teens joined in a scavenger hunt for services. Booths were set up on two floors of the building, with volunteers representing agencies that offer shelter or housing, jobs, food, transportation, child care, health services and mental health counseling.
“The thing about the scavenger hunt, it’s really about frustration,” Paskewitz said. “At every booth, they’ll have to tell their story again — ‘Why are you homeless?’”
Teens had to stop at each booth, waiting in lines, filling out paperwork, and getting check marks showing whether or not they obtained services.
Zhayne Curdy, 17, from Lake Stevens High School, succeeded in getting medication and mental health help for his character, a 61-year-old homeless man with anger issues and post-traumatic stress.
But Miranda Beaupre, 17, a Sultan High School student, wasn’t so lucky. Her alter ego, a grandmother with heart problems caring for an 8-month-old grandson, had lost her senior housing and learned there was no room at a women’s shelter.
“The unfortunate thing is, we do have to turn people away,” said Sam Scoville, a VOA program manager for housing. “These kids are having to tell their story over and over. This helps them understand what it’s like.”
Speakers at the Camp-In included Everett firefighter Brent Weir and Chris Green, a mental health counselor. Green explained that many chronically homeless people suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. “They can’t cope with everyday life,” he said.
“We definitely see the effects of homelessness,” Weir told the students. He said fire crews often respond to 911 calls about people on the streets affected by drugs or alcohol. “As firefighters, we work to save a life. Longer term, unless they get help it’s a revolving door. It’s really sad, heartbreaking,” Weir said.
Faith Simonelli, a VOA housing manager, introduced the last speaker, Avi Unger, a third-grader living at the Interfaith Association’s Family Shelter in Everett. The girl told the group she stayed with her mother and teenage brother in their car, sleeping in parking lots, for a month before coming to the shelter.
“I’d sleep in the back seat, my mom and brother in the front seat,” Avi said.
Before staking out floor space for the night, teens who were only pretending to be homeless were told they wouldn’t be sleeping in Saturday morning. “We’ll wake them up at 5 a.m. They’ll have to organize all their belongings and be ready to go. They’ll get a cup of hot chocolate and a doughnut,” Paskewitz said.
“If this truly was a shelter, they wouldn’t have a place to go,” Fogus said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.