Homelessness protesters wind up in trouble with law

by Bridget Alex | 11/22/04 6:00am

For most protests to gain any sort of notoriety, protesters must break a few laws. At Thursday's protest against homelessness, students did just that.

Not only did 10 students break state law by sleeping outside, these protestors also unintentionally violated the College's egress laws by setting up a band that obstructed a stairway.

The protesters' stated goal, though, wasn't civil disobedience. In an effort to "sleep out to speak out" against homelessness, they spent Thursday night camped outside Robinson Hall, listening to entertainment provided by campus groups and reflecting on homelessness.

It may be true that most homeless don't have North Face jackets, down sleeping bags, six hours of entertainment and continuous free food, but the students said simulating homelessness wasn't their aim.

Rather, they said sleeping outside was more of a publicity stunt to raise awareness of this social ill, which is not readily visible in Hanover.

One of the protesters, Becca Heller '05, said that giving homelessness a visual queue was an "important statement in the middle of the Dartmouth Country Club."

The students also collected cash and food donations for Haiti and Florida Disaster.

With events like this, co-organizer Vanessa Vega '05 said she wants students to "let go of their sense of entitlement and give back."

While only 10 students spent the night, over 200 appeared at some point in the night, according to organizers.

Heller said she found the turnout encouraging.

"You don't see events like this at Dartmouth very often, and by, 'very often,' I mean ever," she said.

Students had attempted a similar event in the past with limited success, but Vega persuaded people to come by offering entertainment and cashing in favors friends owed her.

Vega and co-organizer Lindsey Horton '05 have both experienced homelessness firsthand. When she briefly ran away from home at age 12, Vega spent a night on the streets and in a shelter.

As a high school senior, Horton participated in a program where she feigned homelessness for 24 hours. This involved dressing the part and spending the day and night with homeless in Atlanta. Horton faced prejudices that prevented her from using public bathrooms and sleeping anywhere but a church parking lot for a few hours.

Horton said it was "one of the most powerful experiences ... most cold, sore, painful and tiring."

According to Horton, the project made her understand how difficult it is for homeless people to get jobs, when they have been deprived of sleep, food and warmth. "No, it's not their fault," she said.

In urban environments like Atlanta, homelessness is "so much more in your face," Vega said.

Here, it more often takes the form of couch surfing, where young people migrate between friends' couches, without any home of their own.

Low-income housing in the area is very scarce, and "there are a lot of people who live from check to check," Vega said. One unforeseen event is all it takes for these people to end up without a home.

Most blue-collar workers in the area have to live at least an hour away to afford housing.

"It is really unfair that the people making your lunches have to travel so much farther than your professors," Vega said.

The sleep-out was part of a week-long anti-homelessness effort that raised around $1,000 to be split between disaster relief and Haven, the only homeless shelter in the Upper Valley.

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