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Watkins: If you have a place to stay, be thankful

Tom Watkins

Today is Thanksgiving, yet across Michigan, far too many people are curled up inside cardboard boxes, worldly possessions on their backs as they attempt survival on these mean streets.

Last week, I experienced, for just one night, the agony of being homeless. It was cold that night, 7 degrees. I did it as part of Covenant House Michigan’s mission to raise awareness and funds to help youth homelessness.

Covenant House, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides hope to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth ages 13-22, offers more than shelter. With their educational and vocational programs – they offer - hope and pathways to success.

Delta Air Lines and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association also stepped up, these employees sleeping outside as well to help the effort: Andrea Fischer Newman, Delta Air Lines’ senior vice president for government affairs, Delta Air Lines’ Sam Slaughter, Sellers Buick-GMC as well as the incoming president of the Detroit Auto Dealers, and Rod Alberts, DADA’s executive director. All were presenting sponsors of the 2014 Covenant House Michigan Sleep Out campaign. Collectively, we raised over $250,000. The sleep-out event was co-chaired by Sue Snyder, Michigan’s First Lady and Jacqueline Wilson, First Lady of Wayne State University.

Since its inception in 1997, Leslie Murphy, chair of the Covenant House Board of Directors and its employees through the years have served over 54,000 youth, ages 13-22, helping re-direct them onto a path toward meaningful and successful adulthood.

Lessons learned

Memories of my being out for that one night: aches and pains and a bad cold. The human body is not meant to sleep on cold cement. It was difficult to be productive the following day without a hot shower and a comfortable night’s sleep. Yet this was an experiment – a single night in a controlled, safe environment along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Detroit.

I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, loneliness, isolation, and trepidation if this was your reality night after night, struggling to survive day after day.

Over 40 business leaders soldiered the cold, closing their cardboard box for the night at 11:00 p.m. as the good-natured chatter faded away after midnight, to be replaced by chattering teeth and the cold reality of a night on the streets.

It was an uncomfortable night even though we were prepared with insulated boots, long John’s, gloves, winter hats and a coat that turned into a sleeping bag – produced by a formerly homeless woman.

Some bought their own sleeping bags and a small pillow on which to lay their head. Hard to imagine the youth on our streets, lucky to have a flimsy jacket, a pair of Nikes and a baseball cap as their survival gear.

The physical discomfort also came with mental discomfort. Before we hit the street for the night, we shared dinner and a candle light vigil with homeless youth who are nurtured, educated and sheltered by Covenant House. We heard stories of hurt, pain, substance abuse, violence, neglect and abuse speckled with hope, courage, perseverance, friendship and love. We learned there are multiple paths into and out of homelessness to hope and success.

Sad state of affairs

Today there are more than 86,000 people who are homeless in Michigan. The reasons are myriad and include: lack of affordable housing, inability to make a living wage, mental health issues, domestic abuse, poor educational attainment and lack of marketable job skills • prevalence of drugs, violence and gangs

Over 600,000 people are homeless in the U.S. on any given night. Most (65 percent) were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs and 35 percent were living in unsheltered locations.

Nearly one-quarter of all homeless people are children under the age of 18. One in 10 are between the ages of 18 and 24, and two-thirds (67 percent) are 25 years or older.

The need is great.

There was no better reason to give thanks the next morning than waking up in my box, cold and disoriented but knowing my ordeal was over.

Today is Thanksgiving. A time to give thanks. I awoke after one night in a cardboard box, humbled and full of gratitude for all I have. To those to whom much is given, much is expected.

So hug your family, give thanks, and give back.

Your generous donation of your time or money will help provide shelter, food, clothing and educational and vocational programs to persons who are homeless. Give to Covenant House or to the many local organizations that need and deserve our support.

Our children are a smaller part of our population, but are our collective futures.

Tom Watkins is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.