Auburn, NY -More than 200 kids created a warren of homes out of cardboard boxes and duct tape at an Auburn ice rink Friday night to learn what it’s like to be homeless.
The kids approached the event as a lark. They created mazes, peaked roofed homes and wrote on their cardboard box shelters. Homelessness to them means not being able to pay the rent.
“They don’t know what it’s like to be homeless, not a clue,” said Elaine Wilt, a co-leader of senior Girl Scout Troop 444 in Auburn.
“These guys asked us if we were going to take them to McDonald’s in the morning to eat out of the dumpsters,” said Sandy Tratt, a co-leader of Girl Scout Troop 42229 from Union Springs, as she ripped duct tape for a cardboard box.
The adults said they believed it important to show children who have much what it’s like to have nothing.
“People don’t really understand how much people have less because they think everyone has an easy life, but we’re here to find out how much less they really do have,” said Janya Dyson, 9, of Girl Scout Troop 40415 Seneca Falls, as she constructed her cardboard home against the ice rink wall.
The event hosted by the Girl Scouts of NY Penn Pathways kicks off more than a week of activities in Auburn to raise awareness of the poverty that remains 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of the war on poverty.
The poverty statistics are particularly high for children, where more than a quarter of the children in Auburn live in families with incomes below the poverty line, said Tricia Ottley, the marketing and development director for the Cayuga Seneca Community Action Agency. In Cayuga County, 3,000 children live under the poverty line including 1,400 in Auburn, the county’s only city, she said.
The numbers of homeless women and families in the area is growing, said James Breslin, who operates the Rescue Mission’s shelter for them in Auburn. The mission is currently working to assist 65 families, which 130 children, to find homes, he said.
And the number of men, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 24, served by Chapel House Homeless Shelter in Auburn is growing too, said Executive Director Christina Thornton. The shelter served 215 men last year, up from 174 in 2012, she said.
Homelessness in Cayuga County is more underground than in the Syracuse area, Breslin said. There’s no one standing on the street corners with signs begging for food or money in Auburn, he said. But there are homeless encampments hidden away under bridges, Breslin said.
Friday’s homeless youth experience was the brainchild of the Girl Scouts, he said.
More than 200 children from local Girl Scout troops and the Booker T. Washington Center in Auburn descended on the Casey Park ice rink Friday with cardboard boxes, duct tape, a sleeping bag or blanket, a small pillow and a refillable water bottle.
Participants were not allowed to bring tooth or hair brushes, food, electronics of any kind or foam pads or air mattresses to make the ice rink’s concrete floor any softer, according to scout leader Donna Danylec.
Everyone received a brown paper lunch bag packed by the Rescue Mission with a dinner of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a package of rice crackers and a bottle of water.
As they entered, participants chose a colored plastic bracelet that in the morning would represent their economic status. What they receive at the Saturday OxFam Hunger Banquet breakfast cooked by Rotary club members, is determined by the bracelet’s color, Danylec said. Those with a higher status would get more on their plate, than those in poverty, she said.
During the night, the children were challenged to think about what they would have to give up if they were homeless, Breslin said. What three items would they take with them when they lost their home? If they could choose only one person in their family to go with them who would it be?
The questions were designed to show participants that families are often broken up by homelessness, he said.
The encampment is part of a series of programs in Auburn over the next few weeks that highlight poverty in the area.
Wednesday, the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency will celebrate its move to new offices at 89 York St. with an open house and ribbon cutting from 5-7 p.m.
The Cayuga County Community-Wide Poverty Simulation will be held from 9-11 a.m. Thursday at the former West Middle School gymnasium. Participants will assume the role of a low-income family member living on a limited budget. By the end of the simulation, participants will have a greater understanding of the struggles of the poor and learn how to help solve this pervasive social problem. The program is free, but registration is required by Wednesday.
American Winter, a documentary on the stories of families dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession, will be shown at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Auburn Public Theater. Tickets are $5 in advance and $6 at the door. The film was shot over one winter in Portland, Oregon.
May 18, Abate of Cayuga County will Ride for a Cause at 11 a.m. to raise awareness of hunger in the community. Bikers will meet at the Ukranian National club, 125 Washington St., Auburn. They depart at noon. Registration fee includes donated non-perishable food items to benefit the Cayuga/Seneca Action Agency food pantry.
Community-Wide Bridges Out of Poverty Training: Strategies for Professionals and Communities will be held from 10 a.m.. to 3 p.m. on May 21 at the Springside Inn. The training provides a comprehensive approach to understanding the dynamics that cause and maintain poverty from the individual to the systemic level. The cost is $15 and includes lunch and training materials. Scholarships are available for those in need.
Contact Charley Hannagan by voice or text at 315-470-2161, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at Neighbors West or on Twitter@charleypost.