New York Times, November 24, 1991

"Sleep-Out Group Walks in Shoes Of the Homeless"


AUSTIN, Tex.— Walking along Austin's downtown streets last week with empty pockets and a bedroll tucked beneath her arm, Dawn Jones, a sophomore at the University of Texas, could have easily been one of the city's estimated 3,000 homeless people.

But the night that Ms. Jones spent on the street meant only a brief separation from her comfortable campus-area apartment. As part of the student campaign to focus on the city's homeless, Ms. Jones and five other women decided to gain first-hand knowledge of what is fast becoming a nationwide crisis.

"Most of us have such luxurious lives when you compare it to the problems of those people who don't have homes to go to," said Ms. Jones, coordinator of the University of Texas Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. "We wanted to find a way that would help students stop dehumanizing the homeless, and we decided that this would be a major way to increase that sort of awareness."

The group, which planned to spend the night of Nov. 18 in the streets, originally had about 15 participants. But as the the night approached and the number dwindled to only six women, the participants decided to sleep in a Salvation Army shelter, which they felt was safer than staying on the street.

Carrying Sleeping Bags

As part of their campaign the women gathered in Austin's downtown entertainment district, where many of the city's homeless congregate. Once there, the women carrying sleeping bags and biankets, roamed the area, and some members entered an expensive hotel to use the women's restroom.

"We got a lot of dirty looks," said Ms. Jones, who is from San Antonio. "You could tell what they thought of us right away."

Lisa Davis, a member of the group, said looking down on the homeless was among students at the university. For example, she said, students often call homeless people "drag worms," a word play on "the drag," a street bordering the campus, which is popular among the homeless people.

"The reason that those people remain homeless is because of attitudes like that," said Ms. Davis, a junior from Stillwater, Okla., who is studying sociology. "Students here don't seem to give a damn."

Ms. Davis said that because of her time on the streets, she considered problems that most college students never encounter. "I never really thought about not having a place to put all my stuff, or anything like that," she said.

During the night, the women met and talked with several homeless people, who were curious about the campaign. "They thought we were crazy for wanting to have this sort of experience,” Ms. Davis said. “They told us that it's not an easy life.”

'Panic In Their Eyes'

Lori Cervenak-Renteria, an adveocate for Austin's poor and homeless, helped the women adjust to the streets during their first hours out. “I saw a little panic in their eyes when I left them at about 12:30 that night,” Ms. Cervenak- Renteria said.

She said she believed that collegwe sleep-out campaigns could help improve conditions for the homeless. “I think the students of today are tomorrow's policymakers, and they have to see the problem for themselves to really know how to make a change,” Ms. Cervenak-Renteria said. "It is the only way attitudes are going to change."

Molly Caldwell, another member of the group, said the campaign helped change her perceptions of the homeless. But there are still barriers to understanding the problem, she said.

"It struck me that I could never truly know how to totally relate, because I knew I had a place to go back to,” said Ms. Caldwell, a junior in sociology from San Antonio. "I'm still trying to mull it all over in my head. It's all so overwhelming.”