Shantytown Opens Students' Eyes to Homelessness

October 12th, 2011 | SMWC

If you put your food in a refrigerator, hang your clothes in a closet, lay down to sleep in a bed and wake up under a sturdy roof, then you are richer than almost 3 million Americans.

That staggering number, from the United Nations, is difficult to grasp, let alone understand, without experiencing life on the streets first-hand. On Sept. 22, 2011, students at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) experienced just that– a taste of what life is like for those who struggle to find their next meal or a dry place to sleep.

“Shantytown gave the students a better sense of empathy,” said Malia Hoffman, coordinator of campus ministry at SMWC. “It helps them see that life is more different than they realize.”

Hoffman organized Shantytown to awaken students to the harsh world of homelessness. The students listened to Dottye Crippen, executive director of Bethany House, a program of Catholic Charities that provides food, clothing and shelter to homeless women, children and couples. After the talk, the students were to spend the evening sleeping outside in cardboard boxes. Crippen’s presentation was designed to open the students’ minds, while sleeping in boxes was designed to open their hearts. 

Crippen painted a realistic picture of life of the streets for women and children. They aren’t just materially impoverished; they are also emotionally and mentally worn down. She expanded the students’ view of homelessness, describing the lives and experiences written on those faces standing in the soup kitchen line or sleeping in a doorway.

SMWC sophomore Breaha Thomas lived in a cardboard box in the rain for about three hours to experience what it's like to live on the streets.

“It really opened my eyes,” said Breaha Thomas, a sophomore from Clinton, Ind., studying psychology. “It makes me so sad to know that many people have to live like this all the time, especially during cold winters and hot, miserable summers.”

Due to the downpour that pounded the campus that Thursday night, Thomas was the only student to trudge outside and settle into her new cardboard home. “It was pretty nasty out there,” Hoffman said. As the temperature reached a low of 51 degrees, the rain continued pelting Thomas and her flimsy shelter, sinking her further into the muggy, wet grass of the sunken gardens in front of Le Fer Hall.

“The only comfort I had was for a while there was a friendly large dog that would occasionally look into the box so I could pet her,” Thomas said. “I tried my best to endure it, but in the end, I just got too cold.”

Thomas ended her night in the box after about three hours of dealing with the cold and rain. However, even that brief time was enough to drive the point home.

“I feel as a future counselor, I need to understand people of all different backgrounds,” Thomas explained. “This way I can relate to my clients on a personal level.”

Listening to Crippen and watching Thomas tough it out left a significant impact on the other students. “It gave people a chance to really experience service learning,” said Hoffman, who hopes to host another Shantytown in the spring 2012 semester. “It was a deeper opportunity for them to learn and grow.”

Through participation in events like Shantytown, SMWC students deepen their responsibility to the community with generosity and stewardship. As a part of the College’s mission, developing a student’s compassion and integrity is as crucial to an education as math and science. For more information about SMWC’s service learning opportunities, please visit

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