Focus on the homeless: Students leave comfort zone and ask, ‘What if?’


For going on 17 years Mounds View High School students like Ryann Kelly have left warm beds to sleep outside, rain or snow, for a single night, just to experience a very little of what homelessness means. 

No way it’s the real thing, of course, though there are at least 9,452 Minnesotans who can tell you what having no home is like. That’s the official number of homeless announced last month by Wilder Research and a 22 percent increase from three years ago.
Nope, it’s a far cry from the real thing. For openers, when these kids wake they’ll return to homes in Shoreview and North Oaks and Arden Hills to comfortable beds and stocked refrigerators. Plus, as one former homeless person told Mounds View staffer Mike Coty: “The kids aren’t getting the REAL experience. You should have people come by and heckle and harass them.”

Still, some would argue it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one or more of these north suburban teens might end up homeless. Done every three years, the recent Wilder report on homelessness counted 1,207 youth on their own one night last October; 220 of the homeless were age 17 and younger and 987 were 18 through 21.  

When more than 150 Mounds View High School students sleep on the school’s front lawn April 30 in cardboard box shelters they’ve patched together with duct tape, sheathe themselves in blankets or sleeping bags laid on the ground and try to sleep, you know they’ll be thinking “what if?”

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“You’re thinking you just want to be in your bed and feel comfortable….It’s out of your comfort zone, something different, hard to get used to and you think: ‘What would happen if I had to do this every night?”‘ said Mounds View senior and student council member Ryann Kelly, who’s done this the last three years. She’ll be out there again next week.

Turns out, according to Coty who is adviser to the Student Council, which is sponsoring the event, Mounds View was possibly the first high school in the state to sponsor such a homelessness awareness campaign, starting in 1992. And through the years, about 1,000 Mounds View students have participated, raising $41,865 for programs working with the homeless.

This year students pay a $30 registration fee, which goes mostly to Simpson Housing Services, but also buys them a t-shirt to box away with that stash of memories and the high school letter jacket.

Students will gather around a bonfire, eat soup prepared by the school’s lunch ladies, and hear a speaker from Simpson, which provides temporary and transitional shelter for the homeless. Maybe, like last year, they’ll meet children with no permanent place to lay their heads.

“It was so much fun to hang out with them, talk with them, see what they’ve gone through. We got bikes donated to give to them and it was great to see their reaction,” Kelly said.

Through the year, 10 at a time, Mounds View students also volunteer to serve breakfast to people staying at a Simpson shelter.

Kelly remembers meeting a young man there, an EMT who’d been forced from his home but wasn’t giving up. Days, he went to school, nights he came to the shelter.