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UUs raise money for homeless by sleeping outside

Hundreds of volunteers sleep outside in ‘cardboard cities’ in March action
By Donald E. Skinner

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Around 300 Unitarian Universalists from at least a dozen UU congregations, mostly in Illinois, slept outside in cardboard boxes on the night of March 21 raising more than $9,000 to donate to homeless shelters and food pantries in their communities.

The event, called “Cardboard City,” marked the culmination of seven months of study on the issue of homelessness by many of the congregations, all part of a UU initiative called No More Turning Away. The initiative was created by a group of Illinois UU religious education directors and organized by Steve Cooper, director of religious education at DuPage UU Church in Naperville, Ill.

“We were looking for a social action project that congregations could participate in together without having to travel someplace,” said Cooper. A year ago he began collecting resources on homelessness and put everything he found on a website, nomoreturningaway.org.

Congregations could do once-a-month lessons on homelessness, as well as volunteer at a shelter. Cooper also supplied intergenerational stories and movie suggestions about homelessness. Cooper’s congregation marked the beginning of the church year in September with a food drive.

All of these events led up to Cardboard City, which allowed congregants a chance to “experience” homelessness for a night. “It’s one thing to sit in a room and learn about it,” said Cooper. “It’s something else to experience it, even though it’s only for a night, and knowing you’ve got a home to go back to in the morning.”

Among those who slept out at Naperville were Margaret and Rick Plett and their daughters Melissa, 8, and Cassidy, 5. The Pletts slept in their van rather than a box. “It was hard waking up the next morning and then going into church without looking like you’d slept in your vehicle,” said Margaret. “That’s the same struggle homeless families have—getting up and making themselves presentable to go to work and school.”

She said the family has been involved with a local homeless program, Public Action to Deliver Shelter, and will also be working with Bridge Communities, a transitional housing organization that invites churches to sponsor a family for a year, helping them move beyond homelessness.

Vicki Pozzie and her husband Dominic, of DuPage UU Church, also participated. “The experience really broadened my perception of people who are homeless and what effect being homeless has on children as well as adults,” said Vicki. “I've known a few homeless people, but it's still something we don't see all that often in Naperville.”

Illinois congregations that held sleep-outs or that joined in sleep-outs held by other congregations were First Unitarian Society of Chicago; Third Unitarian Church of Chicago; Beverly Unitarian Church in Chicago; Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship; Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in Palatine; DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville; Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin; Unitarian Church of Hinsdale; North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield; Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford; and Unitarian Universalist Church, Peoria.

Other congregations holding sleep-outs were Eliot Unitarian Chapel in St. Louis, Mo.; Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc.; and Unitarian Universalist Church West in Brookfield, Wisc.

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