By Sheryl Nix, Fort Wainwright PAOMay 20, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population experiences homelessness each year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
This number may seem like a small percentage of the country, but to the more than three million people who bear this title each year, and the millions more who live in poverty and on the verge of homelessness, the number is anything but insignificant.
"Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets," according to the NCH July 2009 "Why are People Homeless'" fact sheet.
Other unsettling components to the issue of homelessness and poverty in America are that approximately 15 percent of the homeless population is comprised of veterans, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in July 2009, and 25,000 children age 5 and younger die each day around the world from hunger, poverty and disease, according to World Vision.
Bringing this issue closer to home for Fort Wainwright youth and teens, the garrison chapel youth are joining forces with World Vision's "30 Hour Famine" program designed to bring youth "groups closer together, feed hungry children and change our world." (www.30hourfamine.org)
Fort Wainwright's venture with the Famine, as it is known in youth circles, will encourage participants to go without food for 30 hours to raise awareness and understanding of what it is like to experience hunger and a brief glimpse into what it is like to be homeless, said Robert Auker, Fort Wainwright garrison youth religious education director.
While every "30 Hour Famine" event around the world is a little different, Auker said Fort Wainwright's chapel youth will combine a "30 Hour Famine" with a campout at the Southern Lights Chapel June 4.
"The kids are going to be outside and they're going to construct their own village or city out of cardboard boxes," he explained. "The Hollywood version of a homeless person is someone who lives in a cardboard box. We're going to give teens an opportunity to experience what that is. We fabricate what homelessness looks like in the media or in our own minds or in the movies, but (when) they experience it, that's when they really own it; that's when they really have some ownership of what it's like. "
The goal of the event is to affect teens' understanding of the issues of hunger, poverty and homelessness and encourage them to make a difference in the world around them, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David A. VanderJagt, Fort Wainwright's garrison chaplain.
"Awareness is the key to coming to understanding," he said. "Obviously for our teenagers, they have never been exposed to hunger; really exposed to want. They've always had shelter. So being exposed, even if it's in a very controlled environment, helps people come to a better understanding. And then understanding leads to compassion and compassion leads to us doing something for others."
Most event coordinators hope for good weather and conditions for their events, but Auker is praying for just the opposite.
"I was talking with Chaplain VanderJagt the other day and he reminded me that the bugs might be pretty bad and we're real excited about that," he said. "If we did a service project at the Ritz Carlton no one would learn anything. So I'm excited for hot (weather), lots of sunlight - kids are going to have trouble sleeping, if they fall asleep at all - but also the bugs and maybe a little bit of rain."
Teen participants will leave their cell phones and iPods at home and actually go hungry, walking in the shoes of the homeless for a brief time, VanderJagt said.
"What is the old saying, 'if I walk in your shoes, then I can understand you'' I guarantee that after 30 hours and missing four meals, they will have a little bit more understanding and hopefully that will lead to compassion," VanderJagt said. "We aren't going to make them suffer, but we are going to make them a little uncomfortable."
In the context of recent natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Tennessee, Auker said he hopes participants will be able to relate to people struggling with hunger and homelessness through this event.
Teens learn more from experiencing than from reading or hearing about something and hopefully they will come closer to understanding the issues of hunger and homelessness in a safe, monitored environment, Auker said.
In addition to having access to restrooms inside the chapel, participants will be monitored throughout the entire event, including supervision by medical personnel.
Since one of the primary purposes of the "30 Hour Famine" is to help participants understand what hunger is like, Auker said that event participants are encouraged to fast from single meals, specific items or the entire 30-hour fast from breakfast on June 4 to lunch on June 5, but that fasting is not required to participate, particularly for participants with medical conditions or those with concerns about going without food for that long.
"Common sense goes a long way," he said. "We'll keep an eye on them. We have a lot of experienced men and women who either participated in '30 Hour Famine' or programs like it with long-term fasting. The beauty of the Wainwright chapel community is that we have medical staff and very highly trained personnel to help (monitor) them."
Event staff have planned a variety of activities for the two dozen teens expected to attend, with the ultimate goal of teaching them about a life that will be foreign for most of them. At the conclusion of the experience, youth participants will attend a festival inside the Southern Lights Chapel, June 5 at 11 a.m. to break their fast and share their experiences and lessons from their "30 Hour Famine" event.
The Wainwright community is invited to attend the festival and bring cans of food in support of the event's canned food drive for the Fairbanks Area Rescue Mission.
"Hopefully we get a good response with (the canned food drive) and kids can identify with them in that, 'hey, I've gone without food for close to 30 hours now and that can of refried beans is looking pretty good and that can of spinach that my mom brought because it was in the back of the cabinet is looking pretty good, but man, I would really like to have a steak,'" he said.
This event could shake up participants' lives and perspectives and lead them into a life of service to others, Auker said. "It's tough. It's really tough and that's why we're doing it," he said.