Smile Politely

Moving beyond One Winter Night

One Winter Night (OWN), an annual fundraiser spearheaded by C-U at Home, took place a few weeks ago in Downtown Champaign. For those who aren’t familiar, this is an event where members of the community commit to being “box dwellers” for a night. They choose to sleep on the streets of Downtown Champaign overnight in the middle of winter, and ask for friends and family to support their cause and donate money to C-U at Home, a Christian organization. It’s the organization’s primary fundraiser, and the money raised supports the various services they offer to those in our community facing homelessness, including the Phoenix Drop-In Center, and a few small transitional homes for men, women, and families. In addition, C-U at Home, in conjunction with Austin’s Place women’s shelter, is hoping to fund a year-round shelter for both men and women by the end of the year.

To be clear, C-U at Home does good work. Anyone who is investing time and money into making our community a better place and helping those in need should be commended. Also, C-U at Home surely has good intentions with OWN, and it raises a decent amount of money; they are close to reaching their goal of $350,000. However, the event also raises questions on our end every year. Part of the mission of OWN is to raise awareness about homelessness, and every year it makes us aware of the fact that we must rely on an event such as this, and on the work of faith-based organizations in general, to provide for the most vulnerable in our community. We find this is problematic. 

Those who choose to participate in OWN are overwhelmingly people of privilege, and they are well-meaning. We’re sure it’s eye-opening — sleeping outside in February is no joke — but the box dwellers are also layered with all of the warmth they want to bring, are often gathered with family members or friends for support, can use a bathroom when they need to, and ultimately, they have a choice. Regardless of how miserable the night might be, participants end up returning home after all is said and done. It is poverty tourism. And though it does the job of raising money, does it truly accomplish the goal of raising awareness? And if it does, what happens after awareness? Are the steps being taken by C-U at Home, and those who participate in and support OWN, ones that will ultimately change the systems that propagate poverty?

C-U at Home is a Christian organization, so naturally many of those who choose to participate in OWN profess this faith as well. Unfortunately, it is also true that a large percentage of those who identify as Christian align themselves with a political party that decries publicly funded programs as socialism (unless it affects them personally) and refuses to entertain the mere mention of raising taxes. Relying on faith-based organizations also becomes a problem when help becomes conditional, when a requirement of participation is a spiritual commitment, or when the entire framework of morality is the non-biblical idea that is always portrayed as a biblical idea — that of personal responsibility, or the “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” mentality. Personal responsibility is important to instill, but not without the acknowledgment of how circumstance and trauma and generational poverty figure into the equation. 

In the current administration’s latest proposed budget, funding for the Community Development Block Grant Program has been completely cut. What does that mean for Champaign and Urbana? It means less money for things like rental assistance, developing accessible housing for seniors and those with disabilities, addressing neighborhoods in disrepair, and possible support for that proposed year round shelter. The grant is meant to address our community’s “greatest economic and community development needs, with an emphasis upon helping persons of extremely low- to low-income.” It seems that a good first individual step, beyond participating in a charity event, would be to vote for people who are going to protect funding like this rather than cut it. 

More broadly, we would like to see a publicly run year-round shelter, as well as robust housing assistance programs in Champaign-Urbana. It’s something that is happening in numerous cities, including Rockford, Illinois. You can read more about what they are doing, and see the services offered. It’s encouraging to know that both Champaign and Urbana, as well as other local entities (including C-U at Home) are in collaboration on issues of homelessness, and the desire exists to provide a 365/24/7 shelter. Support for such a shelter is included as a “Champaign City Council Goal and Key Project” for 2019-2021. Until the commitment is made by governing bodies and individuals alike to prioritize these types of projects, we will have to continue to rely on piecemeal solutions with religious ties.

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top photo from C-U at Home website.

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