Students spend weekend living as the homeless

Sleeping on metal grates is not a typical Saturday night experience.

But freshmen Peter Sacco and Gabriela Naranjo and sophomore Hunter Scott gave up their wallets and cell phones Friday in exchange for cardboard boxes, cups to collect change and trash bags as part of a 48-hour challenge to live like the homeless.

“College is all about doing things you’d never be able to do again,” Sacco said. “This is my way of experiencing college.”

The participants couldn’t shower, shave, change their clothes and wear make-up or even deodorant for a week before the challenge began.

The three members of the GW Catholics at the Newman Center are the first students from the University to participate in the challenge in 13 years, Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said.

Naranjo said the goal was to raise awareness of the suffering endured by homeless people across the District through an experiment designed to travel by word of mouth.

“I want others to notice how important it is,” she said. “And to see how easy it is to make a difference.”

Students created fictitious back-stories and paired up each night with a previously homeless guide who offered them protection and advice.

Donovan said the challenge serves as an experience for those who want to learn more about homelessness.

“There’s nothing that can replace hearing from and talking to an actual homeless person to understand what it means to be homeless,” Donovan said.

He said the challenge is difficult physically and emotionally.

Scott said despite their stories, most of the homeless people they met knew the students were not, in fact, homeless.

“I’m nervous because I don’t think we’re going to be accepted out here,” he said on the first day of the challenge.

The three students gathered plastic bags and cardboard boxes at the McPherson Square Metro station Friday night, the first night of the challenge. They said they were confronted by looks of judgment and resentment.

One homeless man even packed up his stuff and left when the group arrived, they said.

Naranjo said she collected a total of about $60 panhandling – money she spent on meals.

“It’s an enlightening experience,” Naranjo said. “It’s so easy to take what you have for granted.”

The group spent Saturday scavenging through dirt, debris and dumpsters for cardboard and other materials to use at night. Sacco asked a Dupont restaurant owner if he could sweep in exchange for a sandwich. The owner said the area did not need a sweeping, but gave Sacco a sandwich anyway.

The group also visited the Occupy D.C. tents, where protesters provided the students a meal.

Sacco, who said he went to the hospital for food poisoning on Thursday night, opted out of sleeping on the streets and returned to his residence hall both Friday and Saturday nights. Naranjo and Scott slept on the streets.

Naranjo said through her interactions with the homeless, she learned they do not need to be feared.

“They are people too,” she said. “Most had homes at one point. They have dreams, aspirations, goals, just like all of us.”

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