The parking lot of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church is a testament to the amazing things that can happen when discarded cardboard boxes meet the minds of dedicated people armed with duct tape, staple guns and scads of enthusiastic creativity.
Over there, a pile of broken-down boxes has been transformed into a castle, complete with working drawbridge and outlines of felt-tip-marker-penned castle blocks. Next to it is a modular array of rectangular boxes with cut-out door flaps, and next to that is a spoke-and-hub affair featuring sleeping areas extending from a common open-air area. Meanwhile, just a few feet away is what looks to be a cardboard hotel with a roof big enough to sleep maybe a dozen people.
“Sleep” is the key word here, by the way, because all of these cardboard domiciles, as well as a few others nearby, will serve as homes-for-the-night to Southern Nevadans who will become 12-hour inhabitants of Cardboard City 2014.
Last weekend, on a chilly and increasingly windy Saturday evening and still-nippy Sunday morning, the dedicated volunteers spent the night in their cardboard homes as a means of experiencing just a sliver of what many of the valley’s homeless people have no choice but to experience every night.
Just as important, the participants — most of them young people, accompanied by a few hardy adult chaperons — have obtained pledges from donors for their efforts, with proceeds slated to go to Family Promise of Las Vegas, which helps families in Clark County transition from homelessness into permanent housing.
Terry Ruth Lindemann, Family Promise’s executive director, said Cardboard City is the nonprofit organization’s chief annual fundraiser. This year’s event at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 6670 W. Cheyenne Ave., drew more than 35 youths and adults who spent the night in their cardboard boxes, as well as about 70 more donors and supporters.
Jerry Przybysz, Family Promise’s board president, said the organization has been in Las Vegas for about 18 years and that last weekend’s outing marked its sixth Cardboard City. And while sleeping in a cardboard box in a church parking lot for one night can’t wholly replicate the experience of being homeless, it can offer participants at least a fleeting glimpse into a practical consequence of being homeless.
Lindemann, who has spent the night in a cardboard box as a Cardboard City participant in previous years, said the experience is “different” than one might expect.
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “You wake up at 2 in the morning and you hear noises and can’t get back to sleep. It’s kind of scary, and you feel vulnerable when you’re not in your home with a door and a roof.
“The first time I did it a few years back, I was amazed how vulnerable I felt being out there. I was in a box, but I was very alone. I didn’t have access to a bottle of water if I was thirsty and I had to go find where the restroom was. Conveniences we just take for granted, people out there on the street don’t have.”
Also, Przybysz said, “you think it’s going to be pretty quiet out there but there’s traffic and noise.” In fact, he said he felt more vulnerable sleeping outdoors in an urban environment than he ever did camping out in nature.
Participants started arriving at Holy Spirit church about 5:30 p.m. Saturday to sign in, packing along the necessities they figured they’d need during the night. By the time dinner and opening remarks had concluded, three youths from Good Samaritan Lutheran Church were giving their provisions a final check.
It’s the first Cardboard City event for Kyrie Lorfing, 12, Eric Dahl, 13, and Jaida Albanito, 11. But, Kyrie said, “I’ve been excited about it forever.”
Just after sunset, it’s time for construction to begin. It’s a BYOB — Bring Your Own Box — affair, and it’s obvious that some groups have given serious thought to their really temporary housing.
Participants from The Lakes Lutheran Church, for example, have broken down boxes and reassembled them into a castle. The Rev. Kurt Sortland, the church’s pastor, said he hopes the activity will encourage youths to think about homelessness even after the fun, sleepover vibe of Cardboard City is just a memory.
“I think many people may learn only from doing,” he said, “but definitely, everyone learns better when they’re doing something.”
Amy Trunoske, youth leader at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church — their home is a sort of modular complex of boxes — said she “did express to kids that, yeah, it’s a fun kind of thing right now, but here are some real concerns.”
Daughter Caroline, 11, added that she wanted to participate “ever since I heard about it. It’s an experience most people don’t get to have.”
Breanna Hansen, 14, and Paloma Lopez, 13, both of Reformation Lutheran Church, are old hands at this. It’s Breanna’s third Cardboard City and Paloma’s second. Breanna said participating in this hands-on experience makes the notion of homelessness seem more vivid than “just sitting there and thinking about it.”
Breanna’s dad, Christian Hansen, who’ll spend the night sleeping in his sport utility vehicle, said events such as this can help plant a seed about what it might be like to be homeless, not just on one night, but on every night.
“It makes you think,” he said. “When you see someone on the street or hear about someone who’s homeless, you can’t say, ‘I know what that is’ unless you’ve lived it.”
For more than an hour, participants used duct tape, saws and plastic sheeting to create their temporary homes. Then, in a, perhaps, fitting twist, gusty winds trashed some of their work while they were inside for an activity. But, by 11:30 p.m., when the parking lot lights were doused, all had been rebuilt and socializing continued for a few more hours, now in the eerie glow of ambient light from streetlights and businesses.
Night gave way to day, and by 6:15 a.m. Sunday, most participants already had awakened and a few cardboard homes already were history.
How’d it go? “Awesome,” said Kate Willhide, 12, of Reformation Lutheran Church. “I have a sore throat, but awesome.”
It was cold, she added. “Really cold.”
Kate, who had participated in a previous edition of Cardboard City, knew that what she and others at Holy Spirit had experienced isn’t like being homeless for real.
“I know it’s not, because we have, like, candy and bathrooms and stuff,” she said. “But I do think it helps a little bit, because it’s not like (being in) a heated or air-conditioned room. We were kind of exposed.”
Breanna Hansen said the night “was cold. Really, really cold. I had like five blankets and I was still cold.”
Would she do it again? “Yes,” she answered immediately.
Justyn Schlesner, 18, of Living Springs Lutheran Church, said this was his first Cardboard City outing and that the hardest part of it was “sleeping, to be honest. I didn’t sleep at all. Like 20 minutes. It was very uncomfortable.”
The experience brought home the reality that “homeless people have a hard life,” he said.
He added that, while he did understand homelessness on some level before, “I’m kind of seeing it from another perspective.”
Derek Larkins, 16, of The Lakes Lutheran Church, first participated in Cardboard City two years ago.
“I, personally, think it’s kind of enlightening (as to) what other people are experiencing in the world,” he said. “And this kind of makes me realize that I do have a pretty good life right now, and, I kind of want to help other people now.”
By 6:30 a.m. Cardboard City 2014 pretty much was no more. The castle was gone, the hotel demolished and the temporary community was no longer anything but piles of discarded cardboard being loaded into trucks and lots of cellphone photos. But the event did raise about $32,000 for Family Promise and, organizers hope, helped participants connect to the issue of homelessness in a meaningful way.
Lindemann said the sense of community participants experienced also is important and hoped young participants in particular will realize that they “can be more powerful as a group than they can be alone.”
Cardboard City “engages them,” Lindemann said, “because at the end of the day, these kids will be growing up and getting involved because they got involved as youths.”
Who knows? she added. “Maybe they’ll come up with a solution for ending homelessness. We’ve been trying to do it for 30 or 40 years and we haven’t done a good job. Maybe these kids will be the ones to do it.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280