Shantytown a ‘test’ for students

by Kate Paulman

Forget modern conveniences. Heat, light, shower and, yes, even the toilet: gone.

For senior Amber Woodley, the necessity of these common things recently became crystal clear: before bed, she had to study by streetlight. In the morning, she didn’t have anywhere to shower.

But in the middle of the night, a slightly more serious problem arose.

“I had to go to the bathroom after the library closed,” Woodley said. “I was like, ‘Ummm … do I do it somewhere out here?'”

Woodley and several other members of Progressive Action Coalition slept in Shantytown, a cardboard and tarp concoction, Nov. 15-17. PAC used tarps and sleeping bags from the Geology Club and cardboard from Dollar General for the structure.

And no, Woodley did not pee outside on Tuesday night.

“I went to BSC because it’s open all night,” Woodley said. “It was doable. It was an inconvenience, but luckily the weather was nice that night.”

However, the weather wasn’t so nice on Thursday, Nov. 18, slated to be the last night of Shantytown. Rain during the week damaged the cardboard beyond repair, making it uninhabitable by Thursday.

According to senior Kristine Robson, a member of PAC, it was uncomfortably wet by Wednesday morning.

“The tarp was hanging down because it was sagging under the puddles of water and it was dripping on me and I couldn’t even sit up to tie my shoes because I would get water all over myself,” said Robson. “So I was really thankful that I did have a house, that I didn’t have to do this all the time.”

Robson slept in Shantytown all three nights.

This year marked Shantytown’s – and PAC’s – fourth year on campus.

“It’s becoming kind of a tradition,” Robson said. “That’s my hope, anyway.”

Students could sign up to be evicted from their homes this year, a new tactic employed by PAC to increase participation.

About five students signed up to be evicted, but freshman Matt Leavenworth was the only one to actually spend a night in Shantytown.

“It adds another element – not just being homeless, but actually becoming homeless,” Woodley said. “It wasn’t as popular as I thought it would be.”

Still, Shantytown was packed: Tuesday night, six people slept in the 10-by-13 space. Robson estimated it could hold eight people.

“Admittedly, it’s kind of like a slumber party inside,” Woodley said.

Junior Susan Sandford agreed – partly.

“It was fun until the next morning when you couldn’t roll over because there was someone next to you and the ground was really hard,” Sandford said. “It was kind of disorienting, because I woke up with a box in my face.”

Tight quarters and hard ground were not the only problems. Cardboard, apparently, has a particularly nasty smell when wet.

“[In the morning,] I had an hour before class so I went home and showered so I didn’t smell like cardboard all day,” Sandford said. “When the cardboard disintegrates and starts leaking brown water … eww.”

Superficial inconveniences aside, those who slept in Shantytown gained real insight into what it would be like to be homeless.

“The experience of actually feeling like I was homeless because I didn’t go home during the day … I felt dirty and tired,” Robson said. “I didn’t feel like I had a center, a home base. My home was all wet and gross so I couldn’t go there. I was carrying everything around with me – I had my toothbrush and my deodorant stuck in my bag. It was very disorienting and really made me thankful for what I have.”

Woodley had a similar experience. She was kicked out of the library when it closed and had to study in the entryway.

“That was probably the part that was most like being homeless,” Woodley said. “I still had to study, but I didn’t have anywhere I could go. I was at the mercy of others.”

Sandford said it was an eye-opening experience.

“Before I came to Simpson and did this, I didn’t really know about homelessness or ever really thought about it,” Sandford said. “But [being in Shantytown], really makes you think about it and realize, ‘OK, this is what they go through every day and I’m just doing this for one day.’ It makes you more passionate about what they go through.”

For Woodley, who stayed one night in Shantytown, it entailed some self-realization.

“It was kind of a test of the spirit,” Woodley said. “I thought I would do it more than I did, but because it was an inconvenience I chose not to. I failed the test.”