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High school students spend the night in sleeping bags, drawing attention to homelessness

Wyandotte High School students work to build a structure to sleep in out of cardboard boxes as part of a summit to raise awareness for homelessness and food insecurity.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Wyandotte High School students work to build a structure to sleep in out of cardboard boxes as part of a summit to raise awareness for homelessness and food insecurity.

The Wyandotte High School students learned from advocates for the homeless before spending the night in tents and makeshift shelters. The students did most of the planning for the event, their teacher said.

A group of Kansas City, Kansas, high school students got a taste of what it’s like to be living on the streets.

Instead of going out to eat, kicking back with Netflix or doing whatever else teenagers in Kansas City like to do on a Friday night, a group of about 20 Wyandotte High School students gathered in the parking lot behind Evangelistic Center, a church off N. 18th St. — where they would be sleeping for the night.

“Once it was time to go to bed, it was like, ‘Oh, I really am sleeping outside,’” said Sheyvette Dinkens, the students’ business teacher. “And they were cold. They were waking up in the middle of night getting extra blankets, getting drinks. Then there was lots of traffic and noise around them.”

Dinkens runs Suite 1886, a co-working space at the high school that doubles as her classroom. She said her students were almost entirely responsible for planning the event.

One of the student organizers, Judith Diaz, said she thought it was good for students to get an understanding of what houseless people experience on a daily basis in Kansas City, Kansas.

“I think it's really important, because of our community where we live in, we see a lot of homeless in the street,” Diaz said on Friday evening, as students played games and got their tents or cardboard shelters ready for the night. “We are not in their shoes, and today we want to be in their shoes to be able to experience what they go through and how they feel in certain situations. It's really just to show awareness to them and people actually, like, acknowledge them and next time they see them, maybe they'll do an act of kindness.”

Student organizers with Suite 1886 pose during dinner. Participants were assigned different meals based on randomly selected 'incomes'.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Students Jaden Mitchem, Zaria Mitchem, Cydney Byer, and Mikiyah Howard pose during dinner. Participants were assigned different meals based on randomly selected 'incomes'.

Dinkens said the biggest takeaway she wanted students to walk out with was a better understanding of what people experiencing housing or food instability go through. She added that she also wants the students to feel inspired.

“They're young, they have a voice, they have a platform. It's a call of action at the end of this,” said Dinkens. “We want them to act, ‘What can you do to bring awareness and try to resolve the problem of homelessness and hunger in your own community?’”

Students started to trickle in Friday afternoon. At registration, they received at random a lanyard with an attached card that classified them into four categories: no income, low income, middle income, or high income.

“Basically the income you have is how you'll eat and you'll sleep for the night,” said Cydney Byers, one of the students who planned the event.

Low- or no-income participants were given cardboard boxes and duct tape to build a structure to sleep in. Middle-income participants got a tent, and high-income participants got a tent with a mattress. There were also stark differences in the meals served, too, or at least it seemed that way at first.

When students lined up for dinner, people with low or no income were directed to a table with beans and rice and boxed sandwiches. People with middle or high income, however, got their choice of several different types of pasta with salad and breadsticks. After a presentation on homelessness and hunger, the organizers allowed students to eat as they pleased.

The event also taught attendees how to help houseless people if they see them on the street. A person who has experienced homelessness spoke and answered the students’ questions, while representatives from non-profit organizations discussed what resources are available.

“They [the students] themselves may never experience homelessness, but now they know where these resources are and they can connect people to those resources,” Dinkens said.

Rob Santel, director of housing solutions at Cross-Lines Community Outreach, a sponsor of the event, said the number of people experiencing housing and food insecurity in Wyandotte County rose dramatically during the pandemic.

“We've seen three times as many folks seeking services from us within the last several months,” Santel said. “We know that the inflation hits those that are economically disadvantaged more so than other folks, because we all are purchasing the exact same things, so that items like milk and eggs and meat and produce are affecting those individuals and even more so.”

A student tries to sleep in a cardboard box.
Courtesy Photo
Suite 1886
Student Zanya Lamb tries to sleep in a cardboard box.

Dinkins said the experience sleeping outdoors was an awakening for her students. By 7:30 a.m. Saturday, the students had packed up and gone home — an hour-and-a-half earlier than the planned departure time.

“I think when kids woke up the next morning, they were in a big ‘aha’ moment,” she said.

“When they left (Saturday) morning, they were very happy about whatever lifestyle they were having at home or whatever access they had and their families,” Dinkins added. “I’m mean, lots and lots of conversations about ‘I’m so thankful for my family.’”

Kimberly Lopez, a senior at Wyandotte High School, slept in a tent Friday night. She said she hopes Suite 1886 does an event like this again so more students can participate. Lopez said she was shocked at how difficult life is for people who do not have homes.

“It changed my perspective in a way that now I want to help people, you know,” said Lopez. “Now, like, I'm looking for programs that help the homeless, so to feed them. So now I'm more into helping.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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