Cardboard City offers a glimpse of life without a home

Aaliyah Scott, 11, left, of Toms Brook, and Olivia Carpenter, 12, of Edinburg, paint doors of their cardboard living spaces during the Cardboard City Homeless Experience on the grounds of Antioch Church in Woodstock on Friday evening. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – The plight of the homeless is well known.

Understanding the struggles of the homeless is not so well known.

That’s why 60 people, children and adults, slept overnight Friday in hastily constructed cardboard shelters built on the paved parking lot and lawn of Woodstock’s Antioch Church of the Brethren to briefly simulate a homeless experience.

“It was definitely eye-opening,” said Marisa Gill, 26, youth minister at St. John Bosco Catholic Church, who despite being four months pregnant spent the night in what was dubbed Cardboard City with several young people from the church.

“I kept thinking about what homeless children must go through,” she said. “I was freaking out and thinking about my child.”

Paul Tully, 6, of Fort Valley, peeks out of his cardboard box Friday evening. Rich Cooley/Daily

Bedraggled, sleepy, cold and hungry, the overnighters tore down the 30-odd cardboard shelters and most departed before sunrise Saturday.

They had been awakened before dawn by a neighbor’s incessantly barking dog. Upon waking, they found their cardboard shelters soaked with dew, patches of fog floating nearby and a morning temperature just below 60 degrees. (The average low is 52 degrees in Woodstock in September).

The annoying dog was “part of the equation, just another level of discomfort,” said Becky Leland, administrative assistant at Antioch who spearheaded the night in Cardboard City as a fundraiser for Family Promise, which helps homeless families.

When you are homeless, “you don’t get to choose your neighbors,” Leland said.

Discomfort was added when the church doors were locked at 10:30 p.m. and the only toilet was an unheated outdoor porta potty.

Anna Tully, 15, of Fort Valley, rolls out a strip of duct tape to secure her cardboard box. Rich Cooley/Daily

In addition to the sleepover, the group had a meal prepared by the soup kitchen – spaghetti, applesauce and garlic bread. Later they were organized into random family groups to experience a half-hour long typical “homeless journey” inside the church.

First, the “family” was evicted, and then sent to a couch surfing room (usually provided by different relatives and friends), followed by a hotel (often briefly provided by social services). Next they were ushered outside to a car (often used for sleeping by the homeless) followed by looking at a small tent and finally ending with Family Promise.

The wrap-up mimicked real world choices to be made with a limited amount of money.

They were told how much money they had and what things cost. Then they were asked to make hard choices on how funds would be divided for rent, child care, food, cable TV, cell phone, transportation, etc.

As some “families” group cycled through the “homeless journey, others stuffed 200 Blessing Bags for homeless families with donated items such as shampoo, soap, washcloths, lip balm, deodorant, tissues, granola bars and cheese breadsticks.

Liam Tully, 11, of Fort Valley, looks outside his cardboard box. Rich Cooley/Daily

They also thumbed through government forms on a table so they could see what the homeless applying for aid encounter with bureaucracy.

“The forms can be intimidating,” said Leland, “or just overwhelming for some people. It’s easy to see why some people don’t or won’t complete them.”

The 14-page Department of Social Services form has three pages of instructions and 11 pages of boxes to be checked and personal information to be provided that easily tallies more than 100 items.

Slightly less involved was the to-page driver’s license application and the eight-page health coverage application form seeking aid for health costs.

“It was very interesting,” said Jessica Sharp, 16, an 11th-grader at Woodstock Central High School, who took part because “I wanted to see how they see the world and help me have a better outlook on my life and take advantage of what I have.”

Linda Wheeler, of Strasburg, serves a simple meal of pasta and apple sauce to Jody Mumaw, of Edinburg, and other participants of the Cardboard City Homeless Experience on the grounds of Antioch Church in Woodstock on Friday evening. The meal represented what a homeless shelter would provide. Rich Cooley/Daily

When she got up, she said, “It was a little chilly, I was hungry and definitely tired. It was difficult to sleep in the box.”

She went home, ate breakfast and went to sleep, noting it would be “extremely difficult” to live without a home to go to.

Trina George, 44, head of Woodstock’s Girl Scout Cadets 40627, spent the night with several of her cadets and hoped “they go home and focus on what they have and then go and see how they can do community service.”

The experience was described as “genuine” by 11-year-old Cadet Eden Shelhamer, a  sixth-grader at Woodstock’s Peter Muhlenberg Middle School. “I still felt homeless because I was not sleeping in my house,” she said.

The biggest shelter belonged to Rob Monahan, 44, a small business owner in Strasburg. Built 8 feet high, 12 feet long and 7.5 feet wide with boxes and cardboard strips, he designed it so that three adults and three children from Strasburg United Methodist Church.

Monahan called the event “a terrific cause,” noting when he was discharged from the Marine Corp at age 22 in 1995, his motorcycle broke down in Gainesville, Florida and he only had enough money to fix it.

“I slept on the ground at a gas station under a (detached) stop sign for two weeks (until the motorcycle was repaired),” he remembered. “It was winter and it was cold and eventually my aunt was able to help me. My life has come a long way since then, but I can relate and I will do anything to help. Pay it forward.”

“I will do it again next year,” he said, noting it was exactly 6:03 a.m. when he heard the dog starting to bark and checked his watch.

The barking triggered a quick exodus from Cardboard City, with the experience making the participants more personally conscious of the challenges the increasing number of homeless in the Shenandoah Valley face.