Homelessness Education through Event Innovation

When addressing a somber cause such as homelessness, charities create captivating events that raise awareness and funds. For example, Wheeler Mission Ministries hosts a “Camp Out to Stamp Out Homelessness” event each June. This gathering introduces the predicament of homelessness for a night and draws local residents out of their comfort zones. The organizers invite concerned individuals and families to sleep overnight downtown in tents, albeit with food, music, and a group atmosphere. In other cities, the “Box City” concept similarly invites participants to raise money from friends and then sleep outdoors in cardboard boxes. The cardboard boxes enable participants to learn a little about the dynamics of homelessness and create a visible signal to a community that fellow residents care about the issue. The funds go towards programs that provide job training, health care, educational assistance, warmth, nourishment, and other services to the poor.

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Nonprofit proponents may ask: Are these unique types of events right for our organization? Appropriateness is partly a matter of respecting the social issue: Does the event educate or manipulate? Does it minimize or exaggerate the severity of the cause it addresses? Organizers must be sensitive to the message their event will convey to the people they serve.

Fundraisers must also match the approach to the group’s desired audience. For example, Wheeler Mission Ministries encourages families with children to join the Camp Out event. Wheeler’s team markets the event by describing it as an exciting urban camping trip. They emphasize a fun experience. As a result, scores of families pay $25 per adult for this event filled with age-appropriate activities.

“Box City” fundraisers use a different approach that draws attention on college campuses. Schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill host Box City nights annually. On these nights, students build box “villages” with their friends. The event portrays homelessness more accurately than Camp Out does. Students bring few belongings with them and meet local speakers who convey the hardships of surviving on the street. The young adults hear about mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, the challenges of obtaining affordable housing, drug abuse, cold, hunger, and other factors that affect the homeless community.

The above events target the same cause, but each effectively reaches a different demographic. Event attendees develop a basic understanding of the problem and potential interventions. The organizers skirt a fine line between educating the public and trivializing or sensationalizing homelessness, and perhaps they even cross this line, but in the process they reduce psychological barriers in people who might otherwise be afraid or reluctant to talk to the homeless or think about poverty.