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Home sweet home?

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By Calen McKinney

They slept in small cardboard boxes on a cold, rainy night.

They didn't have cell phones, laptop computers, access to an unlimited amount of food or even pillows. They were homeless.

Campbellsville University students and community members participated in "Cardboard Nation" this past weekend to raise public awareness of homelessness in Taylor County.

CU's Carver School of Social Work sponsored the event, which began Friday on Stapp Lawn at 7 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. the next morning.

Cardboard Nation's purpose was also to raise money for the Green River Ministries Homeless Shelter.

Participants "rented" cardboard box space, with the boxes increasing in size according to the amount of "rent" raised.

Chad Baconnier, president of the Campbellsville University's Social Workers in Touch Can Help - SWITCH - Club, was one of the organizers of the event.

Baconnier said the event was a great success and it was exciting to see how many people came to the event and showed they cared about homelessness.

Misty Curry, Green River Ministries executive director, said the event raised $7,348.74 for GRM's homeless shelter.

Organizers set a goal of having 200 people participate in the Cardboard Nation event, Baconnier said. Only about 150 actually participated, however, with 45 sleeping in cardboard boxes Friday night. But the group is still considering the event a success.

"We totally exceeded our goal for money," he said.

Curry said GRM is very excited that the event raised more than $7,000. The SWITCH Club, she said, was scheduled to present a check to GRM at a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday afternoon for GRM's new "one-stop shop" building.

Curry said the current homeless shelter offers one housing unit. The new building, she said, will increase that number to three. From last June until February, she said, the shelter was operating with a waiting list of as many as six families needing a place to stay. Since February, she said, something has changed and GRM hasn't seen as much of a need for shelter services. Curry said she's not sure why this has happened.

A survey in January to determine the number of homeless people in Taylor County yielded 135 responses. Of those 135, Curry said, 82 people were determined to be homeless but living with family or friends. Seven of those surveys were from people living in substandard living conditions with no utilities or other similar conditions. The remaining 46, she said, were truly homeless in that they have no permanent, night-time residence. Those people could be living in their cars, on the street or in a wooded area, she said.

Baconnier said Campbellsville University would like to make the Cardboard Nation event an annual one, though organizers are still trying to work out those details. He said there has been talk of coordinating the event with other surrounding college campuses to organize state-wide Cardboard Nation events.

Baconnier said the idea for the event started when the SWITCH Club wanted to have a large fundraiser. The club wanted the fundraiser to have a social work twist, he said, and leave a lasting impact on the community.

The group traveled last year to volunteer at two homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., Baconnier said, and worked in food kitchens.

The trip helped the social work students realize firsthand the prevalence and reality of homelessness, he said.

Baconnier said Cardboard Nation organizers got mixed reactions from those on CU's campus about the event. Some people shouted negative comments at organizers, he said, while others said they really felt the event helped them learn what a homeless person might go through.

Becky Nash, county extension agent for family and consumer sciences and Green River Ministries board member, participated in the event by dressing up as a homeless person panhandling for money.

Nash said she wanted to participate in Cardboard Nation because she has been involved with Green River Ministries and its homeless shelter since its inception.

She said she knew she couldn't physically sleep in a cardboard box for an entire night, so she decided she would portray a homeless person who walked around pushing a shopping cart.

Nash said she borrowed a shopping cart from CVS Pharmacy. She dressed for the event there, she said, and some of those who saw her acted like they weren't sure what she was doing.

She said she then walked to Campbellsville University and it was interesting to see people's reactions to her appearance.

"Most people avoided eye contact," she said. "Some children tried to [make eye contact]. It was kind of interesting to notice how people acted toward me."

Though some people avoided her, Nash said, no one was rude or mean to her.

She said she has witnessed homelessness before while on a mission trip to Haiti, a very poor country suffering from extreme poverty.

"We just don't have it bad here at all," she said.

Nash said it was hard not to break character and she was afraid some people might think her performance was funny, something she didn't want.

"It became sad," she said. "I wanted to do it with respect for people who suffer from that."

Many people who become homeless, Nash said, suffer from mental illnesses. She said she tried to include that in her portrayal of a homeless person. She said she has known families who have had people disappear and then later be found living on the streets.

"It's just really sad," she said.

In all, Nash said she received about $200 in pledges from extension homemakers to participate in Cardboard Nation. After panhandling for a few hours, she said, she collected about $25 more.

Baconnier said many people thought Nash actually was a homeless person.

Cardboard Nation organizers asked that participants leave food, drinks, cell phones, laptops and video games behind in an attempt to truly experience what it would be like to be homeless.

The night's activities included group skits, a scavenger hunt, acoustic music presented by CU's Oasis Band, contests with door prizes and guest speakers who spoke about their experiences with homelessness.

For more information or questions about GRM, call Curry at 465-9880. To donate to GRM, mail donations to Green River Ministries, 100 Stockyard St., Campbellsville, Ky., 42718.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.