Youth build box city to learn about homelessness

More than 70 teenagers from area churches built shelters from cardboard
boxes on the grounds of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
June 3, 2009 | OMAHA, Neb. (UMNS)

More than 70 teenagers had some soup before going to bed in cardboard boxes on the front lawn of First United Methodist Church.

Ashley Parks, 13, of Olive Crest United Methodist, unrolls her sleeping bag to keep warm on the 40-degree spring night.

The teens gave up their comfortable bedrooms for one night to experience the hardships faced by those who live on the streets. Youth from several United Methodist churches and high schools built the cardboard shantytown.

“You got a perspective of what people go through every night. It would definitely be very difficult,” said Andy Anderson, 17.

Organizers thought the spring weather would be warm for the event. However, temperatures dropped into the 40s and a brisk wind made it feel even chillier—adding a dose of realism to Box City.

“Really cold. Like, right now my feet are like, numb,” said Elizabeth Lam, 14, a member of the youth group at First United Methodist.

“It is not even that cold out and I’m in a winter coat, freezing,” said Kailey Hansen, 16. “So I can only imagine what they go through in the winter. It has to be terrible — I don’t know how they do it.”

The youth also heard from speakers involved in agencies that assist the homeless in the Omaha area. Teresa Swett, who said she was homeless three times, encouraged the youth to explore ways they could make a difference.

“You’re our next generation. You are going to help end homelessness,” said Swett.

Becky Jones, youth coordinator at First United Methodist Church, hopes the experience will encourage the teens to take a bigger role in addressing homelessness and other social issues.

Swett’s experiences helped dispel some of the stereotypes about the homeless.

“I learned that it’s not just people that have lost their jobs,” said Andrea Norton, 14. “I honestly didn’t know that so many people with disabilities are homeless. Some people have gone through abuse and violence.”

The youth paid $5 each as “rent” for their boxes and brought more than 300 cans of food. The cash donations and food went to area agencies that help the homeless.

“It’s one thing to say something and another thing completely to do it, to experience something,” said Kealani Kee, 15, who helped organize the Box City event.

“People my age, we have a lot of luxuries that the people of older generations didn’t have and a lot of the times it makes us spoiled,” she added.

Becky Jones, First United Methodist’s youth coordinator, hopes the experience will encourage the teens to take a bigger role in addressing homelessness and other social issues.

“To me, that is the way you get your people involved in government, in your churches, in your community,” Jones said. “Just one night at Box City, maybe that’s a start.”

The Rev. Jane Florence, senior pastor of the 650-member congregation, believes the church can play a leading role in bringing about change.

Maddy Malone, 14, of St. Paul United Methodist Church, decorates the carton she will sleep in for the Box City event.

“The church is the energy, the viable force that’s in the community, that’s drawing people together to help us serve one another,” she said.

After the chilly night, Norton and Cooper Flanagan, 13, were thinking about ways to get more youth involved.

“I’m in a few service clubs at my school,” Norton said. “I can get stuff going at my school that will help promote awareness, also.”

Flanagan said the experience also helped him rethink the role of churches.

“I think it might open people’s eyes more, so that they know that churches do more than just teach religion,” he said. “They also help people.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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