With the sun rising behind them, a handful of Oakton Community College students huddled around a fire Wednesday morning to keep warm after spending a night out in the cold to experience firsthand what it would be like to be homeless.
Roughly 27 students stayed through the night in shanties they built out of discarded cardboard boxes in the courtyard of the Des Plaines campus. The project was sponsored by the college's Habitat for Humanity Chapter to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless. The shanties will stay up all week as a reminder to other students.
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"The biggest problem for me was the ground was so hard. I had a rough night of sleep last night," said Ryan Alm, 20, of Des Plaines, a junior majoring in sports management. "For people to do that on a daily basis, it's crazy to think that people have to go through that. It took me about three hours to build my shanty. My toes were like freezing."
The temperature overnight dipped to the high 20s. Students had to sign waivers before they were allowed to participate.
With a blanket and sleeping bag to keep warm and the cardboard box blocking the wind, Alm said it was surprisingly warmer inside the shanty.
"I had to bury my face into the pillow to make sure it didn't get too cold," Alm said. "The rest of my body was warm because it was in a sleeping bag. I noticed that throughout the night I had to sit by the fire a lot."
It's the second year at Oakton for the shantytown project. The first time was at the Skokie campus.
"I did this last year and I was really excited to do it again," said Sahil Pruthi, 23, of Chicago who is studying finance at Oakton. "It's just a reminder to be grateful for what you have. You don't look at it from the other people's perspective until you live it."
Students camped out starting around 6 p.m. Tuesday. During the night, students and visitors enjoyed marshmallow s'mores around the campfire, hot chocolate, cider, and music by the Folktons featuring Oakton employees.
Money raised through the project benefits Habitat for Humanity.
Students Ben Miller and Elizabeth Adcox, both of Des Plaines, said the experience gave them a greater appreciation for the hardships homeless people face. The two volunteer at a Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) at St. Mary Parish in Des Plaines.
"It was a little bit different because with them, they actually have a building to sleep in," said Miller, 26, a liberal-arts major. "We had a sleeping bag and a couple of fleece blankets. I've done camping before but there is a big difference between having an actual tent and just roughing it."
Adcox said it was time well spent if it helped raise more awareness about homelessness.
"For a night, we at least felt how homeless people actually feel," said the 23-year-old, who is studying early childhood education at Oakton.