The Out in the Open Sleepout on Cricket Hill Park in Chicago on Friday, November 20 was both celebratory and solemn, bluesy and rockin’, serious and inspiring. My 11-year old son, Leo and I slept outside in tents during a winter storm, Chicago’s first snowfall with temperatures dipping into the 20 degree mark to help raise awareness and funds for youth experiencing homelessness. The charity event benefitted 19+ agencies servicing youth in the Chicago area. It took place near an area where people without stable housing seek shelter, usually in tents which are easily seen from Lakeshore Drive, the city’s well traveled highway. The sleepout opened with the national anthem and a brass quintet playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a particular favorite of ours. We heard songs and autobiographical poems about triumphs over addiction, depression, rejection, and homelessness, speeches from politicians doing their best to make our city better and safer for teens in homeless situations, stories of LGBTQ folks making it through to a positive today. My son Leo’s friend and classmate, Ava, daughter of Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos, along with Theresa announced a new fundraising project in collaboration with local artists to raise money for youth-related issues. Leo ran up and down Cricket Hill with his friends, then acted as camera person as his friend Georgia interviewed some of the other sleep outers for ProudYouth.
I didn’t truly know what to expect either from the event or from us at the end of it. I was reassured by the effectiveness of community organizing, by fundraising through social media, and by the basic goodheartedness of people in general. I’m amazed and impressed that 400 people attended the event, most of whom stayed the night in our little tent city. We raised more than $40,000 for groups providing services for teenagers who do not have a consistent place to sleep on cold, snowy nights like the evening we slept out.
I was mentally prepared for the snow, but forgot snow melts once you get inside. I neglected to bring a full change of clothes for either of us. We did, however, wear many layers, so we were pretty dry when we crawled into our sleeping bags. We also had a borrowed tent, pillows, thick socks, and a large blanket to cover the two of us, and good company. Leo and I had fun organizing our bedding and our pile of wet stuff, and working out the best direction to sleep in. As we lay there thinking of the strangers around us, Leo said that he knew they all had to be nice people because they had chosen to be a part of this charity event, too. We fell asleep after the heavy snowfall turned to rain and the generator for the klieg lights had been turned off (but before our sleep out neighbors in the tent I dubbed “the party tent” stopped giggling). I awoke several times throughout the night to find it was still raining; it rained the entire night and well into the light of day. We awoke to damp bedding, wet tent walls, sodden grass, and full bladders, but also a feeling of satisfaction at a mission completed—we had spent the entire night sleeping out in the cold.
Of the entire experience, dealing with the cold, wet morning was the most difficult bit. Our coats, hats, and gloves from the night before were soaked, so we were wearing a motley assortment of garments and blankets while we disassembled the tent with stiff fingers, dragging our stuff back to the car with snow in our shoes.
On our drive back home, traveling west on Wilson Avenue under the bridge, I saw the tents lined up against the wall and remembered the sign I had seen when we had driven east along the same road the evening before. It said, “Do You Have a Moral Compass?” I believe the sign was put up in protest of the forced dismantling by police of these tiny tent communities of homeless people. Yes, I thought then, I do have a moral compass and so does my kid, but now it’s a little more finely calibrated knowing there are plenty more people out there who will put their bodies where their hearts are and speak up for the change they want to see.