Two weeks ago my friend Josh told me about the CEO Sleep Out: a United Way event designed to raise money for and bring attention to the issue of homelessness in our community. I looked at Josh and laughed. “I don’t camp out for fun! That’s crazy.” The next day, I read about people near Moore Square who were threatened with arrest if they continued to hand out biscuits to the hungry. I realized I hadn’t spent much time lately considering the hungry and the homeless in our area.
Despite North Carolina’s recent economic recovery, over the last decade our state has moved from 26th to 12th in the country in terms of the percentage of people living in poverty. In Durham, twenty-six percent of children go to bed hungry regularly. I’m not forced to look at that very often. I turn my gaze away.
I decided that it was time to look carefully and to see.
Last Thursday, I joined 36 other executives at the CEO Sleep Out in downtown Durham. We had a discussion on shelters, transitional housing, and behavior changes needed to help marginalized people transition into mainstream society. We talked Friday morning about economic inequality and why we’re losing the battle against poverty in North Carolina. The most powerful discussion was a 2 hour panel of young people who spent their teenage years in foster care. I’d never given much thought to what happens when a child is transitioned out of foster care at 18 years of age. One of these poised, articulate, successful young women had been in 20 placements between 8 and 18. How did she ever manage to learn anything at school? I was so impressed by these panelists.
The United Way encouraged the participants in the CEO Sleep Out to raise money from our friends and family to support the most vulnerable members of our community. The fundraiser also allowed the participants to gain “luxury” items to enhance their overnight experience based on the dollar amount of the contributions they garnered. My friends and family raised enough money to provide me with a refrigerator box, a pillow, and a sleeping bag. The box was big enough for me to fit into, and along with the pillow and the sleeping bag, it was surprisingly cozy.
I knew we were safe. We had a security guard keeping watch. I didn’t keep any valuables with me and I was tucked away in my box. Still, sleep was difficult. I was surrounded by other people I really didn’t know. There were strange noises. The stadium lights at the nearby Durham Bulls Athletic Park didn’t get turned off until sometime after 1 in the morning. The occasional post-baseball game drunk continued to wander by until a little after 2. A train roared along the train tracks, complete with safety whistle, next to our sleeping spot at about 2:30. At best, I was able to sleep in one hour stretches. I can’t imagine how someone pulls it together after multiple nights like that. I don’t see how sleeping in your car is any better – it’s more cramped and less comfortable.
The CEO Sleep Out was a powerful experience. Through it I walked a few steps in someone else’s shoes. I turned my gaze back to some of the most vulnerable members of our community and took the time to actually see them. The Sleep Out reminded me how blessed I am. It reignited my commitment to make our community better. I am grateful for the experience and I am thankful to everyone who supported me.