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My Homeless Experience for the Night

The following post was submitted by Andy Perry of the Peoria Fire Department:

On Friday, January 13, 2017, I volunteered to be a part of about 70 local community members in spending the night outside the Peoria Civic Center in cardboard refrigerator boxes, from 6:00 pm in the evening until 6:00 am the next morning.    A not-for-profit group hosted the event to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those in the Peoria, Illinois community without homes and to give citizens an opportunity to help in the fight to end homelessness in Central Illinois.  Each of us was sked to raise $1,000 for the “privilege” of participating.  The event raised approximately $64,000 to support the group’s continuing efforts to provide permanent supportive housing and end homelessness in our community.   The event also included a series of educational presentations focused on homelessness and its impact on our community.


Homeless man holding a sign


The idea was first mentioned at a monthly union meeting, and three Peoria Firefighter Local 50 members attended along with our Assistant Fire Chief.  We met up in the lobby of the Peoria Civic Center and signed in a few minutes before the event kicked off and we began our twelve hours of homelessness.


I must admit the 28 degree temperatures felt pretty cushy as I was bundled up in long johns, sweat pants, snow pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, down-feather coat, ski gloves, and snow cap.  I felt my first pang of guilt.  The next step was to choose my house.  I picked a 27-cubic foot refrigerator box and positioned it next to my fellow firefighters’ homes, but not before spreading a yoga mat down beneath it for an additional barrier between me and the cold concrete – my second pang of guilt.  Next came the industrial grade waterproof, gooseneck feather filled, arctic rated sleeping bag.  At this point, ten minutes in to the night, I felt like I was cheating until I looked around at similarly dressed and prepared participants that looked ready for a trip to the North Pole.


An awkward feeling-out period began next as people began to mingle and chat and discuss the night ahead.  A man with a bullhorn informed us there would be pizza delivered in a few hours, there were warming stations just inside the foyer door, and armed security guards staffed the entrance and exit locations to keep out the local riff-raff – many of whom I suppose were homeless.  This time the guilty pang hit me with a bit more sense of irony and hypocrisy.  Nevertheless, a few hours passed and I decided to hit the rack.



Homelss sign


I laid down and snuggled into the sleeping bag and found a nice hole in the box near my head.  Although it allowed the 18 degree temperatures and 10mph wind from the ENE to infiltrate my bedroom, it served nicely as a hanger for my eye glasses.  The festive mood outside slowly died down and I naturally couldn’t sleep.  This was a blessing.  It allowed me time to think about the experience on many different levels.


I originally signed up to gain a simple understanding of what it would be like to be homeless.  I had envisioned meeting at a predetermined location, hopping in the back of a van and being dropped off on a random street corner left to survive the elements and surroundings of the real “Street life.”  The guilty pleasures of having warm clothing, a safe environment, and warm food, put a damper on those notions.  All was not lost, however.  It was still humbling as I lay there without my CPAP machine or my dogs at the foot of the bed.  My wife wasn’t there and my kids weren’t in the rooms next door.  This was enough to help me empathize with the true sick and suffering persons ailing with homelessness every day and night. I thought of the uniformed police officers working overtime to ensure my safety.  I had never seen similar security details in my 23+ years of being a Peoria Firefighter.  At the time this was written, Peoria had ten shootings in the previous week.  I thought of the times when, as a first responder, I muttered under my breath, feelings of being ‘put out’ by such emergency responses.  I reflected a little deeper into the underlying reasons for some of the homeless individuals to begin with: under-education, addiction, PTSD, assorted mental disorders, feelings of unrecoverable despair, and other contributing factors of life’s unbalanced equity for all.  I eventually fell in and out of sleep for the remainder of the night and I left for home feeling exhausted.  My next-door neighbor, a brother firefighter of mine, undoubtedly left tired as well, as he continually pounded on my exterior wall a few dozen times throughout the night at my snoring.


Walk a mile in my shoes saying


By no means did this experience give me a 100% insight on what it truly means to be homeless, but in addition to the experience itself, I was enlightened and left speechless by two of the donors that helped me raise my monetary goal.  One indicated to me that he was happy to give because he had been there in real life.  I had no idea.  Another was my niece, an elementary school teacher in a deprived Peoria neighborhood, who told me, “I’m so proud of you uncle Andy. This will directly help many of my students!”  We probably must walk a mile in another man’s shoes to know the real story, but there is some benefit to walking a half-mile – especially if it gets us out of our comfort zone.  I look forward to next January.


Andy Perry

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support

@andrewperry100 on Twitter

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