MARSHALL - Using the light of their cell phones, several Southwest Minnesota State University students started setting up their cardboard box "homes" for the night on Saturday at the university's softball field.
Ashley Woodward and Kelsey Sunvold were decorating their boxes with some duct tape, while others started to settle in.
The students were getting ready to experience what it's like to be homeless as part of a "Kick-Out Homelessness" event hosted by the SMSU Newman Club. The day included a kickball tournament, a hot dog feed and guest speakers sharing their experiences in helping the homeless.
Photo by Cindy Votruba
Rachel Wendlandt gets ready to pitch during a kickball tournament Saturday afternoon as part of the “Kick-Out Homelessness” event hosted by the Newman Club at Southwest Minnesota State University.
"It's to create awareness about homelessness, especially in this community," said Angie Euerle, who helped organize the kickball tournament.
Leah Pavek, who is the Catholic campus minister at SMSU, said the Newman Club does a lot of Bible studies and prayer and also has members help out at the local food shelf. Saturday's event was another way to help out.
"We want to serve," Pavek said.
"We're just eager to get the campus involved," Euerle said. "We invited the community to sleep out. We thought it would be fun for families and a learning experience for all ages. It's all about serving God, that was our central focus."
Two of the guest speakers were Steve Roe, the director of Beacon of Hope, a homeless shelter for men in Fort Dodge, Iowa, along with Eric Howard, chaplain at Beacon of Hope.
"I've been working in rescue missions for 20 years," Howard said. "I love what I do." Howard himself had been homeless and dealing with his own issues when walked into a rescue mission back in 1986
"When I was homeless, I lacked structure," Howard said.
Howard was a chaplain at a shelter in Phoenix when he learned about Roe buying a building to open a rescue mission and doing a lot of the work on his own.
"I e-mailed him and encouraged him," Howard said. Roe e-mailed back asking "who are you?" and the two met. "When I first met him, I knew there was so many awesome things about this gentleman."
Roe said that back in high school he was voted "most likely to never succeed" and would possibly be in prison. He barely graduated high school, coming from a dysfunctional home life of drugs and alcohol.
"For me to be even standing here is a miracle," Roe said. "There was a point in my life that I was going to end my life. I cried out to Jesus, and he messed me up in a good way."
Roe became a youth leader at his church, met a person who ministered to the homeless and saw something happening with his own life as he and his youth group did the same. When he'd see families living in tents in the snow, "it was so heavy on my heart, I had to do something," he said.
So Roe bought a 15,000 square foot Masonic temple that was dilapidated.
"And everybody thought I was nuts," he said. It also would take a lot of money to get the building up and running. But the community came together to help Roe with his mission, and Beacon of Hope opened in 2010 with limited resources. In the last three years, 500 men have been through the shelter.
Roe and Howard lived at the shelter for six months so they could shape it.
The Beacon of Hope is a shelter that helps, heals and equips men to become productive in society, Howard said. They pray with the men, counsel them and help them set goals.
"Seventy percent of people who show up at our door have no direction," he said.
Howard said he and Roe want Beacon of Hope to be a safe place for the guys to be and get something firm under their feet.
"We're about helping and healing and bringing hope to people's lives," Howard said.
Margaret Palan, community resource coordinator of Western Community Action, said that the Kitchen Table Food Shelf serves 600 households a month.
"And (the number is) growing," she said. She said the volunteers from SMSU are really wonderful.
"Homelessness does exist in rural Minnesota," said Lori Lerohl of WCA. It just looks different out here, she said, with people living in their cars, in a garage, "couch-hopping," living in storage units or living in someone's yard.
Those who are homeless don't want others to know that they are homeless, Lerohl said.
"They could be your co-workers or people you grew up with," she said.
Pam Russell of The Refuge - A Fresh Start said the organization gets referrals from different agencies.
"We do see people who come back and need some help and those who have shared success stories," she said.
After the speakers, several students took part in the sleepout.
"It's the first year we've done this," Alison Nagel said. "I wanted to be here to learn more about homelessness."
Hannah Beeler had heard about the event and wanted to learn as well.
"Get the full experience because people don't realize how difficult it is to be homeless," Beeler said.