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Queens students spend night in cars to experience homelessness

University’s project aimed to help raise awareness among students, community

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

A group of Queens University of Charlotte students woke up in their cars Tuesday morning to help highlight the fact that homelessness takes many forms.

Sometimes, homelessness is a disheveled man living on the street or in a shelter. Other times, it’s a family barely getting by and sleeping in a car to save on rent.

Pat Taft, director of the university’s Center for Active Citizenship, said Queens organizes a campuswide service projects each semester. This year, the university decided to participate in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, which started Saturday. Taft said she hopes participation becomes an annual tradition.

More than a dozen Queens students stayed in their cars from 9 p.m. Monday to 7:30 a.m. Tuesday in the university’s residential quad.

“It will be rain or shine because if you’re homeless, you don’t get to pick the weather,” Taft said on Monday, as the forecast called for chilly rain.

During “No Place to Call Home: Sleeping in My Car” students were allowed leave their cars as soon as they collected 50 items of food. Taft said participants collected and delivered 500 pounds of food to be delivered to the Salvation Army’s women and children’s homeless shelter.

“People never think they’re going to be in this situation. They always think that people who are homeless are people who are substance abusers and things like that,” said Queens senior Gelianny Esponda, 21, who participated in the event. “But a lot of times, these families simply lack affordable housing and are heavily affected by unemployment. In reality, any of us could be homeless.”

Taft experienced firsthand just how much the issue of homelessness resonated with students. Soon after the university announced the event, a student visited her office to tell Taft that as a high school student, she once had to sleep in her car for two weeks because of family problems.

“The reality that you’ll have to sleep in a car is closer to home than sleeping in a cardboard box for these students,” Taft said.

Esponda said she anticipated that sleeping in her car for one night would be eye-opening.

“I’ve never really slept in a car except when traveling from point A to B,” said Esponda. “It’s not easy. It will probably be cold. I’ll just be experiencing that for one night. I can only imagine people who have to do that for weeks, who don’t have a place to live.”

But more than just a social experiment, student Adam Raby, who also participated, said he hopes the event encourages others to consider the underlying causes of homelessness.

“I hope more people show up to learn than to be entertained,” said Raby on Monday afternoon. “I hope the underlying causes are looked at instead of ‘Oh, it’s an event where people sleep in their cars.’ ”

Arriero: 704-777-7070; Twitter: @earriero
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