Sleep Out Saturday a show of support for 'invisible homeless'
"I'm in a big pool of possibility," Nije Simone Salter says.
It's only a few months into her freshman year at Elmhurst College, and the 18-year-old lets herself dream.
She will probably major in business, but she knows for sure she wants a job in public service, something that gives back.
Salter can finally plan her future.
"Take small steps," she reminds herself.
It's a lesson she and her family has learned breaking free from homelessness. Salter went to three different high schools as her family moved from one friend's house to another. She kept that life in limbo secret from her classmates and teachers.
"We haven't struggled our whole lives," Salter said. "I don't look like the classical, stereotypically homeless girl. That was something I was able to hide."
Now she doesn't shy away from her past. Salter plans to join as many as 2,000 people across DuPage County participating in Sleep Out Saturday on Nov. 7. It's a fundraiser for Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit group that provided transitional housing for the Salters, mentors, case workers and a path to their own apartment.
Most participants will sleep in boxes and tents overnight in the cold. It's a show of empathy, but the event also is meant to change some minds about what the group calls the "invisible homeless."
"It's a night that creates good, honest conversations about what homeless and poverty means," said Chad Pedigo, special events manager at the 27-year-old organization.
For the third time, Josh Crosby will voluntarily sleep in a makeshift shelter of cardboard boxes on top of an asphalt parking lot at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn. The 13-year-old previously has greeted the next morning with a hard, frost-covered jacket and a stiff back. He gets a "fair amount of sleep," but tries not to think back to the comforts of his own home and instead, "stay in the moment."
"If I could barely do it one night, imagine doing that every day," the Hadley Junior High student said.
Bridge families often are like the Salters. They may be a co-worker or your child's classmate, "people who are standing right in front of you," Pedigo said.
And yet behind the surface, they're staying with friends, in motels and cars and "couch-surfing," after the loss of a job or sudden illness, he said.
Many are young. More than 1,600 students enrolled in DuPage County schools were considered homeless in the 2013-14 school year, Pedigo said.
And finding affordable housing in DuPage doesn't come easily. Minimum-wage earners would have to work 90 hours a week to rent a two-bedroom unit at fair-market price, Pedigo said.
"We really seek to create the opportunity," he said.
Bridge clients meet at least once a week with mentors. They work toward a budgeting plan and get counseling on resumes and job interviews. It's an intensive, two-year program designed to connect them to jobs that interest them and pay a living wage.
"Bridge is oriented around the family unit," said Salter, who also received a scholarship. "Everything you learn, you learn as a family."
Her dad was laid off from a telecommunications job in the downturn and briefly worked three years at a ministry job that fell through, Salter said. When her parents told her about transitional housing, she first imagined "a shelter with cots."
Instead, they moved into a two-bedroom apartment owned and operated by Bridge and began to feel "peace," Salter said.
In August, they moved into their own apartment in the same complex in Glen Ellyn.
"Every day, you walk outside, it's an opportunity to remember where you came from and how far you've come," Salter said.
She commutes to college, her mom works as a patient rep for a hospital and her dad is ministering to former prison inmates on Chicago's West Side. She plans to recruit friends for Sleep Out Saturday in honor of her supporters at Bridge.
"I realize this is my testimony," she said. "I'm proud to have it."
The event begins with registration at 5:45 p.m. in downtown Glen Ellyn, next to the Bridge offices at 505 Crescent Blvd. Then a rally starts at 6 p.m., with a concert and speeches by former clients.
Sleep Out Saturday typically raises more than $100,000, but Bridge Communities is aiming for $150,000 this year, Pedigo said.
"It is a great way not only to become informed, but also to share along with your fellow neighbors in an act of kindness," he said.
If you goWhat: Sleep Out Saturday rally
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7
Where: Outside Bridge Communities headquarters, 505 Crescent Blvd., Glen Ellyn; sleep out sites will be located across DuPage County
Info: (630) 545-0610 or Bridgecommunities.org