Downie: The gaps that Sleepouts can’t bridge

On Saturday night, a cluster of tents dotted the grass in front of Dwight Hall for the annual Sleepout of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project. For a suggested minimum donation of $50, students could rent a tent and sleep the night on Old Campus, “in solidarity with those who do not have homes of their own,” as YHHAP puts it. The evening’s program included folk music, contra-dancing and a pancake breakfast in the morning. Proceeds from the Sleepout went towards Shelter Now, a YHHAP project whose fundraising and advocacy efforts keep homeless shelters open throughout the city.

That night, a handful of men slept on the benches of New Haven Green. This time of year is particularly harsh to them, as it brings the cold weather and harsh winds that mark the onset of winter. They huddle beneath blankets, ringed by the bags and carts that hold their possessions. Most would probably prefer to sleep in shelters, but there are never enough beds.

I realize that, for these men and the rest of New Haven’s homeless, events like the Sleepout are indispensable. The money raised pays for shelters whose funding has collapsed, the victims of city budget cuts. In addition, the Sleepout improves awareness of an issue criminally neglected in our country. Without these sorts of events, the Green might play host each night to an even larger crowd.

At the same time, the idea of a Sleepout sits uneasily with me. It seems to suggest that sleeping outside has some sort of core connection with homelessness, and that a night outside might give us a taste of a homeless person’s life. But homelessness means so much more than sleeping outside. Homelessness means a daily struggle to live in a world arrayed against your well-being because you lack a legal claim to any particular piece of land. In a world that emphasizes appearance, many of the homeless cannot afford basic hygiene supplies. In a world that conflates one’s job with one’s worth to society, many struggle to find employment. In a world that is almost unbearable without companionship, many have been rejected by families and friends. Of course, sleeping outside in the cold worsens all of these problems: Each year, hundreds of homeless Americans freeze to death, and thousands more suffer from the physical stresses of living outdoors. To be homeless entails much more than a night outside, let alone one spent in tents and filled with music, s’mores, and the company of friends.

I write this column not to call to end the Sleepout — far from it. Every night this winter, 125 New Haven men will spend the night in a shelter because of efforts such as the Sleepout. In addition, I know that, for the Sleepout to draw participants, it needs to be fun. Sacrificing fun for a semblance of “authenticity” would kill attendance, and it still wouldn’t give participants any true sense of what it means to be homeless. In organizing and popularizing the Sleepout, YHHAP has achieved as much as anyone could ask for. I admire and support their efforts.

Nevertheless, as we try to give back for the blessings of a Yale education, we must keep in mind the contradictions captured so poignantly in the Sleepout. When we try to step into the lives of those less fortunate, we must recognize that there are gaps that we cannot bridge; we can return to our lives, but they must stay in theirs. At the same time, the enormity of these gaps makes our efforts to bridge them even more important. This challenge confronts not only participants of the Sleepout, but anyone who serves. I hope that YHHAP continues to hold the Sleepout, and that, one day, we can walk onto an empty Green at night and realize that our Sleepouts have done their job. But I also hope that, each year, we come away from the festivities knowing just how far we are from the lives of the homeless, and that this knowledge will inspire us to fight even harder on their behalf.

Ned Downie is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.


  • YaleMom

    I think Mr. Downie (Downie Soft!!) is missing an important point here — sleepouts are fun! My daughter and I used to go camping and eat lots of s’mores!!

  • RexMottram08

    Yes, everyone remembers Mother Theresa for her “sleepouts.”

    This is laughable.

  • FailBoat

    > In a world that conflates one’s job with one’s worth to society, many struggle to find employment.

    The world does not conflate this. The ability to purchase goods conflates this. People do not have jobs to be worth something to society. People have jobs to have money, which allows them to purchase goods. Notably, plenty of people (heirs, lottery winners) are content without jobs – because they have money.

    The mission of ending homelessness is a laudable one. I truly believe that we should work tirelessly to better the lives of others. But I cringe when people blame “society” or “the world” for what are, most of the time, private failings or plain bad luck.

  • gz2012

    I very much agree with where you’re coming from, Ned; it is uncomfortable to hold fundraisers that do not really bridge the differences between us and the homeless community in New Haven. As an organization that works directly on this issue, we know that this event does not explain to anyone what it is to be homeless, and we’re sorry if it appeared that we did think that. Very little – save actually being homeless – could actually simulate what life is like for the people who sleep on the Green and under bridges at night.

    As an organization, though, we are also committed to trying to help students understand these people’s struggles. That’s why we – as we did yesterday – invite currently and formerly homeless individuals to speak at panels, and put up displays on Cross Campus showing photographs of the ad hoc constructions some of New Haven’s homeless sleep in. And it is also part of why we encourage students to get involved and serve directly with us – even if just for one day, or a couple of hours.

    Thanks for your very honest reflection on the Sleepout. I, too, hope one day that the work of YHHAP and dozens of organizations around this city pays off, and we do indeed find that we live in a New Haven without homelessness.

    ~Gabriel Zucker
    Co-Director, YHHAP