Hundreds of people will sleep outside in Mobile Saturday night.
While some of them may not have much of a choice when it comes to where they’ll lay their heads that night, one particular group will be choosing to sleep outside for a cause.
Starting at 4 p.m., cardboard boxes will begin popping up all across the lawn of the Alabama School of Math and Science soccer field, creating a miniature city where participants will spend the night to raise awareness about local homelessness.
Participants will also dine from a soup line.
“This creates a connection on the daily struggle of being homeless,” said Brandi Purvis, resource development director for Family Promise of Coastal Alabama. “The purpose of Cardboard City is to raise awareness of family homelessness.”
According to Purvis, families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, so the need is ever growing. Just this year alone, the Mobile County Public School System identified over 6,000 school-aged children as homeless, she said.
“That is an astounding number and signifies how big this problem is getting,” she said.
As of the last point-in-time count conducted in January 2014, there were 600 homeless people in the Mobile area, Diane McCaskey, associate executive director at Dumas Wesley Community Center, said.
“We know that number is underreported,” she said.
According to McCaskey, in order to be counted homeless, a person must already be in the emergency shelter system, which means an individual has already been sleeping in a place not meant for sleeping, such as car, park bench or under a bridge, or they must be facing eviction from their place of residence.
Therefore, the number does not include people who are “doubled up” or “couch surfing,” she said.
“We really want to try to help people overcome the barriers that they face and get back into stable housing,” she added.
Established through a partnership between Family Promise of Coastal Alabama and Dumas Wesley Community Center’s Sybil H. Smith Family Village, Cardboard City allows participants to create their own homemade cardboard shelters and asks $100 rent per box to house two participants. Pledge money is typically raised in various ways including donations from family, churches and businesses.
Monies raised from Cardboard City benefit both Family Promise and the Sybil H. Smith Family Village, allowing the agencies to provide essential services like transportation and case management among many other things, Purvis said.
“We get to use that money for things like daycare, which is a barrier to going to work,” McCaskey said. “And we use it for all kinds of things – bus passes, medicines – just whatever our residents might need to help them get stable and get back on their feet. It’s a big help.”
Even though the idea of Cardboard City is to give participants some insight into the struggles of homelessness, McCaskey said the experience is actually nothing like being homeless. Instead, it’s more about raising awareness, recognizing people who work in the community to eliminate homelessness and ultimately support those who are experiencing it, she said.
“We say get a taste of it for a night, but it’s just a taste,” she said. “It’s nothing like being homeless because we are in a secure, gated lot, there are lights, there’s a DJ, there are tons of other people around and everybody is supervised. It’s real safe and it’s fun, but it is so meaningful.”
Comparing Cardboard City to the popular ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge, McCaskey hopes that through avid community awareness, people will get involved and take the initiative to learn more about homelessness and invite their friends to learn more about the cause as well.
“If you can imagine how uncomfortable [the ice-bucket challenge] is for just a few moments, that doesn’t give you the exact experience that someone with ALS has, but it gives you a reminder like, ‘Oh, that is uncomfortable,’” she said. “And it’s the same thing at Cardboard City. It’s a challenge that we encouraging everyone to come out and accept and help us raise awareness and funds for these programs and the people that we serve.”
“I hope that when people go down the road, they [ask] ‘What’s going on over there?’” she added.
According to McCaskey, Cardboard City had about 125 participants last year and raised around $12,000. This year, she hopes the event yields $15,000, which is a mark they have reached in the past.
The event kicks off with a grand ceremony and entertainment before the introduction of the Cardboard City Council, who will judge the “Out of the Box Contest.”
“People have turned boxes into semi-trailer trucks, Snoopy houses, really, realistic looking houses or businesses,” McCaskey said. “We’ve had people build box-shaped things like Spongebob Squarepants, so people are very creative with some cardboard.”
Awards will be handed out to the contest winner and to the individual and group who raised the most money.
Additionally, organizers ask that children leave their cell phones, MP3 players and video games at home.
“We would really like for them to spend time with one another throwing a football around, dancing and getting to know what this whole thing is all about,” McCaskey said. “Spend time talking face-to-face.”
The event will conclude with an annual memorial, where members of Cardboard City can light a candle and call out a person’s name in remembrance.
“It’s just a moment to say this person had either experienced homelessness at some point in their lives or they passed away while they were homeless, which we don’t ever want to have happen,” McCaskey said. “But their lives are important and we remember them, so it’s a really meaningful event.”
Cardboard City has been an event staple for Family Promise of Coastal Alabama for nine years and Cardboard Cities are held throughout the country by other Family Promise affiliates.
The event takes place Oct. 25 in the Alabama School of Math and Science soccer field at the corner of Dauphin and Ann Streets.
Visitors are encouraged and may attend the event for free without spending the night.
More information is available at www.cardboardcitymobile.com.