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'Lockout for Homelessness' proves 'life-changing' for NHS members

Several thin pieces of cardboard were all that separated a group of San Luis High School students from the balmy desert air. It was after midnight. It was cold. The students were hungry and sleepless. The warmth and comfort of home was all too elusive.

“We basically experienced what homeless people would in the streets,” SLHS junior Andres Ovalle said.

Ovalle and more than 30 other members of the San Luis chapter of the National Honors Society (NHS) were taking part in the club’s first-ever “Lockout for Homelessness” on Jan. 19.

“We ate only a little portion of soup, not a whole can of soup,” Ovalle continued. “We were experiencing the cold because it was a cold night in January. We were basically recalling all of the things that we missed and didn’t have from home and didn’t have at the moment and what we would want if we were homeless.”

To say the experience was eye-opening might be an understatement.

“It was really hard,” said senior Rachell Pena. “When I got back home I honestly felt more thankful for what I had.”

NHS adviser and SLHS faculty member Betsy Jacobson conceived of the night’s timeline. According to Jacobson, student participants were intentionally left out of the planning stages to better simulate the uncertainty of homelessness.  

The group arrived on campus around 7 p.m. and were afforded minimal supplies. They were limited to items they could carry and were not permitted to bring cell phones or other technology. Cardboard was at a premium, as was rationing cans of soup that were served from a makeshift shelter near the library. Every few hours a group of chaperones would wake up the students, forcing them to relocate to a different area of the campus.

“I wanted to sleep and people would be talking and finally I was able to sleep and people would be like, ‘Time to get up. We have to move over there,’” Pena said.

At 8 p.m. the students heard from guest speakers from Crossroads Mission, including a man named Mario, who at one point in his life was homeless for more than a decade. He shared some of the fears and realities of homelessness.

“He said sometimes they go days or weeks without talking to anybody,” SLHS junior Andrea Aranda said. “So, sometimes the best parts of their days were when someone actually talked to them and interacted with them.”

Magdalena Robles, a senior at San Luis, added: “We see lots of homeless people in the community and how they dress, but actually hearing from someone who was homeless made a bigger impact.”

What may have been even more impactful, though, was experiencing life on the street, however brief it may have been. One of the chaperones, Jeff Saari, who at midnight gathered students for a critical-thinking activity, reminded them that they were only experiencing one night, while for other members of their community that one night is reality.

“I was shocked,” senior Agustin Padilla said. “You don’t really think about it because we have our home, we have our beds, so, as a community we don’t really pay attention to it. It’s different when you experience it. That’s when we start thinking about it. All of us probably never thought about it, but now that we’ve been through it, we want to help. It’s just sad that it took this to want to give that help to those people.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), there are large percentages of people who need help. Last year, 8,947 people experienced homelessness on a given night in Arizona, while nearly 2,000 of those individuals experience “chronic homelessness.” On a single night in the United States, the USICH estimates nearly 550,000 people experience homelessness.

“From my end, I have been trying to get this event off the ground for three years,” Jacobson said. “I first was made aware of our students’ struggle with homelessness after I started at San Luis High School when I discovered a student was homeless. I had known this student for six years and was completely unaware of his struggles because it is an issue that is rarely openly discussed. This lit a fire in me to shine a light on this issue within our school and community.”

And with the Lockout for Homelessness, which included contributions from chaperones Lourdes Aranda, John Glauner and Saari as well as community outreach partners from Crossroads Mission, Jacobson seemed to light a mutual fire within her students. They donated more than 100 pairs of new socks and canned goods to Crossroads Mission, and took a life-altering message home in the sleepy early-morning hours.

“I didn’t really know anyone personally that was homeless,” Ovalle said, invoking an overtly serious tone. “That’s why it’s so rare for us to think about homeless people. We don’t really have a solid connection with anyone who has been homeless, so it’s not been common for us to talk about. But now that we have experience for ourselves and we can share our ideas and help open people’s eyes.”

Eric Patten