It Happened ‘One Night’: Students learn hard, cold facts about what it’s like to be homeless

Jan 08, 2014 by

The bitterly cold temperatures hadn’t set in yet; but at 40 degrees, Tuesday, Nov. 19, was plenty chilly enough to make a point for some 100 TJC students who participated in “One Night Without a Home” in Tyler’s Bergfeld Park.

This marked the fourth time the Smith County Coalition for the Homeless has hosted the overnight “sleep out,” to dispel myths about the homeless population and raise understanding during National Hunger & Homeless Awareness Month.

Dr. Deborah Kelley, TJC sociology/psychology professor and department chair of behavioral sciences said, “The night started with us all having dinner at the Salvation Army. After dinner – which was quite good, by the way – we walked from the Salvation Army to Bergfeld Park. It wasn’t far but it was difficult, since we carried our sleeping bags and pillows.

“Some students brought little rolling baskets. Others brought blankets in their backpacks with very little else. The students were excited and expectant as we marched along.”

When they arrived at the amphitheater, participants listened to music performed by a local rabbi and heard speeches from representatives of several non-profit agencies.

“As night set in, the mood quickly became more somber and reflective,” Kelley said. “We learned about what they offered in response to the growing number of homeless in Smith County. We also heard from a few people who are presently homeless. All three were unusual, in that they were what might be categorized as the ‘new homeless.’ One had a college degree and another had technical training. Both had lost their jobs. You realize that the homeless don’t all look alike – that there are more middle class who are slipping into that category for a variety of reasons.”

The homeless person with the college degree got the attention of TJC students.

Some students brought sleeping bags while others settled into their cardboard boxes.

Some students brought sleeping bags while others settled into their cardboard boxes.

“It’s not something you expect at all,” said Whitehouse freshman Elijah Stevenson. “You’re told that if you go to college, study hard and get a degree, you’ll get a job and it will all work out. What I also learned from the speakers was that it wasn’t a single event that led to them being homeless; it was a series of decisions and choices they made. It was gradual.”

At the end of the program, the group held a candlelight ceremony as names were called of homeless people who had died during the last year.

Then came bedtime – sans beds. Since many homeless spend most of their time alone, participants were encouraged not to congregate but to disperse throughout the park and find a place to sleep.
It wasn’t a peaceful night. The park was noisy and bright, with cars going by constantly, sirens, honking, people laughing, talking and walking around. And it was cold.

“There was no sleeping, because all you could think about was how cold you were,” Stevenson said. “You hear the cliché about counting your blessings; and that entire night, you’re just going through everything you’re thankful for: a home, a job, a warm bed – all of the really basic things that we take for granted. It opened my eyes.”

At 5 a.m., participants woke and gathered once again in the amphitheater to discuss the experience.

Students were transformed by their night of homelessness.

Stevenson said, “For me personally, what really hit home was that homelessness exists here in Tyler, Texas. It’s not some vague thing that happens somewhere else. It’s here and it isn’t as uncommon as we think.”

“I can honestly say that last night changed my life,” TJC student Michelle Knapp said. “It was such a humbling experience. Those people out there need a voice. They need people who care. They need to know that they are not invisible. So instead of passing judgment on the homeless, let’s affirm to them that they are noticed – smile at them, give them eye contact, acknowledge them, and help them.

“I feel such a strong desire to help. I can’t wait to start volunteering and I hope that leads me to do more and more to help.”

Stevenson said, “There’s really no way to fully comprehend what homeless people actually go through on a daily basis. For us, it was just one night; but it was a night we will never forget.”

Elise Mullinix is TJC editorial manager.



Fall 2013, Features

About the author

Elise Mullinix is Tyler Junior College's Editorial Manager. She can be reached at 903-510-2370 or at