Rutgers students ‘sleep out’ in Camden to support local homeless shelter

Rutgers-Camden student Nitan Shanas embraces Joseph's House client and volunteer Liz Holmes in the lobby of the Camden homeless shelter where they met. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rutgers-Camden student Nitan Shanas embraces Joseph's House client and volunteer Liz Holmes in the lobby of the Camden homeless shelter where they met. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Despite the temperature threatening to hover around freezing Thursday night, about 50 Rutgers-Camden students will trade their warm beds for cardboard and sleeping bags in the quad outside the campus center.

It’s part of a “sleep out” organized by junior Nitan Shanas and the Camden homeless shelter Joseph’s House to educate students about the causes of homelessness and give them a limited sample of what it’s like.

“Generally speaking, people think that homeless people are lazy and what they’re going through is their choice and that it’s not a hard thing to go through,” Shanas said. “Through the sleep out and through the indoor programming, I’m hoping to change some of that.”

Nearly 9,000 people in New Jersey were homeless during a statewide count earlier this year, including about 600 in Camden County.

Through the work of such organizations as Covenant House, which serves homeless youth across North and South America, sleep outs have spread as a way to express solidarity with homeless people, promote volunteerism and raise money for shelters.

Phillies alumni Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa will host a sleep out with Covenant House in Center City next week, one of a dozen such events scheduled that day throughout the country.

The Rutgers-Camden event will feature several hours of educational programming inside before moving out onto the quad, where Rutgers police will provide security.

Staff from Joseph’s House will be on hand to talk with students about what can drive homelessness — anything from addiction and health crises to PTSD and being shunned by family members over one’s sexual orientation.

Shawn Sheekey, executive director of Joseph’s House, sits in the shelter’s dormitory, which can house more than 90 people on a cold night. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Homelessness is very much of an interconnected issue,” said Shanas, who volunteers at the shelter. “There’s all sorts of other issues that intertwine within it that cause people to become homeless, and for everyone it’s different.”

Students will also hear a recorded message from Liz Holmes, a Camden woman who had no place to live and was battling decades of addiction when she came to Joseph’s House last summer.

During an interview at the shelter this week, Holmes, 67, marveled at how her life has changed since then. She is now sober, lives in her own apartment in Camden, has a part-time job and got to meet Bon Jovi last month when he visited Joseph’s House to celebrate its expansion from a nighttime to all-day facility with space for service providers to offer assistance on-site.

“You hear actors and songwriters,” she said. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d meet anyone that important.”

All proceeds from Thursday’s sleep out will benefit Joseph’s House, which hosts up to 92 people a night at its location on Atlantic Ave. Organizers are accepting donations online through a link on the shelter’s website.

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