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Raising awareness on homeless youth

By JACQUELINE GIFUNI, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   March 27, 2013 at 12:05 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, March 27 (UPI) -- On March 22, 160 New York and New Jersey young professionals took on the challenge of sleeping out one night to raise awareness about homeless youth.

Launching the first Sleep Out: Young Professionals Edition for Covenant House, the group has raised more than $230,000 to help homeless youth get off the streets.

Covenant House is the largest privately funded charity in the Americas providing care and vital services to homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked and exploited youth.

Below is a letter one staff sleeper sent supporters the morning after the event. Jacqueline Gifuni has been with Covenant House New Jersey in their Development Department since 2011.

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Last night was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Set aside the touching stories of our brave kids and set aside the moving retreat staff members were able to attend before sleeping out; I have fallen even more in love with the mission of Covenant House than I ever thought possible.

As I was setting up what was to be my "bed" for the night in front of our shelter on 41st Street in New York City, other sleepers were up talking and trying to make the time pass. I made my rounds and spoke with friends and co-workers and took a few pictures as if it was another night out.

When it was finally "lights out" around 12:30 a.m., I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, pulled my hood over my head, and slipped on my ski gloves in an attempt to stay warm. To my surprise, I fell in the deepest sleep I had experienced in a while. When I awoke, I was certain I had slept through the whole night. To my dismay, my phone read 1:20 a.m. I had only slept 40 minutes. This was when I began to feel anxious.

For the next 3 hours I was in a dreamy daze, falling in and out of consciousness for what felt like eternity. Every time I seemed to have found a comfortable set up, something either startled me out of sleep or the hard ground forced me to readjust myself.

Every single truck that drove past heading for the Lincoln Tunnel felt as if someone took a huge pot and banged it against my face. If that was not bad enough, I had felt sick and achy all day before, to only become compounded with the brisk cold air that somehow made it inside my sleeping bag, despite my efforts.

I thought my few camping experiences would have helped me weather this, but nothing could have prepared me for the mental and physical toll of sleeping on the hard concrete in front of a New York City shelter.

Around 4 a.m. I started to feel anguish. I just wanted to go home. I started dreaming about my warm bed, a nice hot shower and some soup to help warm me from the inside out.

Then a wave of emotion struck me and engulfed my every being; at least I have a home to go to after this. I started thinking about all those kids who come to our doors and experience this sense of fear and loneliness day in and out. How do they cope? And even more miraculous, how do some of them hold steady jobs and go to school while sleeping a few hours a night on the cold streets?

At this point, my anguish turned into anger and frustration. I began to recall all the times I have heard someone say "Why don't these homeless kids just get a job?" I normally would respond with the usual, "Well, it's difficult ... You do not understand their plight."

Now, I feel as if I can answer with much more composure and a deeper understanding: "You try sleeping outside, worried that someone my come to mug you, hurt you, rape you. You try to carry all your belongings on you at all times. You try to make yourself look and feel human after spending the night on the street and attempt to clean up in a public bathroom stall. And then you try to turn your $7.50 an hour minimum wage into a living wage in a city where if you're not making $12.50 an hour, you can't even afford an apartment."

All in all, my experience was horrible but it was eye-opening. If I did not have the utmost respect and admiration for the kids I serve at Covenant House before last night, I certainly do now.

I want to leave you all with this quote one of our kids said while telling his personal story. He had lost his birth mother at a young age and was abused by his adoptive mother. Despite his struggles, he graduated high school and is looking to go to college.

I ask that you keep him and all homeless and suffering kids of the streets in your hearts, and share this with anyone who might be doubtful about their true struggles. I am now home nursing a cold and a splintering headache because of sleeping out for one night. I cannot begin to fathom this being my everyday life.

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"There are two definitions of FEAR. You can either Forget Everything And Run, or you can Forgive Everyone And Rise.... I choose to live my life by the latter." -- CHNY Youth

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(Jacqueline Gifuni is a development associate for Covenant House New Jersey, a shelter that provides a continuum of services for homeless youth aged 18-21. She is also a graduate student at Monclair State Univesity, working toward a master's degree in public health.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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