Student Organizes ‘Sleepout’ to Raise Money for Homelessness

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Nitan Shanas speaking about the sleepout at Rutgers-Camden
Nitan Shanas, center, organized a speaking program and sleepout at Rutgers-Camden. From left: Nyeema Watson, Shawn Sheekey, Shanas, Tricia Bradly and Tania Martinez (Photo by Daoud Moon)

Nitan Shanas had to do a lot of convincing to get his recent project off the ground.

He had to lobby campus authorities at Rutgers University-Camden to let him host it on campus, and he had to plead with the Office of Civic Engagement to allow it to happen in less-than-ideal weather. He had to convince other student groups to pitch in, too.

After clearing those hurdles, all Shanas had left was to do the most difficult job of persuasion: convincing his peers to join him for a night sleeping outside on the Rutgers-Camden campus to raise money and awareness for homeless people. A so-called “sleepout.”

“I said, ‘Nitan, if it’s 30, and will remain 30 throughout the night, I’ll let this happen,’” Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers-Camden, said with a laugh. “‘If it dips, if I see that it’s going to dip, you can’t do that.’”

Though Shanas believes it may have dipped for a moment overnight from Nov. 14 to Nov. 15, it didn’t stop him and 20 other students from braving the cold and raising awareness and thousands of dollars for Joseph’s House of Camden, one of the city’s largest overnight homeless shelters.

Shanas, who is part of a program known as Civic Scholars, was born in Jerusalem, and spent his first few years in Gan Yavne, just east of Ashdod. In 2009, his family moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when he was 10. He was an Eagle Scout growing up, and his time in the scouts gave him his first exposure to homelessness and food insecurity.

“What I really loved about Boy Scouts, specifically volunteering-wise, was that every year, we’d put bags on people’s doors to collect food for the local food pantry, and then, we’d collect that next week,” he said. “It made me realize how much I loved volunteering.”

He also recalls trips to New York with his mother and an evening in Baltimore with friends, each of which ended with Shanas giving his leftover meals to homeless people. These early experiences awoke him to the realities of homelessness, and set him on his path.

Shanas followed his older brother to Rutgers-Camden. He applied to the Rutgers-Camden Civic Scholars program, a branch of a national program based at Princeton University. Applicants submit an idea for a long-term service project in and around Camden, explaining how it dovetails with their studies. Successful applicants typically have some experience in their chosen area, which Shanas did. Those who are accepted commit to 300 service hours per school year, and receive a $2,000 scholarship.

Though many have been accepted to the program over the years, said Watson, who oversees the program, Shanas’ participation has been a little different, as best highlighted by the sleepout program.

“This is probably the most expansive project I’ve ever seen a student a part of the Civic Scholars program do, or even just a student here generally at Rutgers-Camden,” she said.

During his freshman year, Shanas read “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, which follows eight Milwaukee families as they struggle to keep their homes during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. As he learned more about the economic, social and emotional toll of eviction, he stepped up his involvement with Camden’s homeless shelters, where he routinely volunteers his time.

Volunteering at the since-closed New Visions Homeless Day Shelter and Joseph’s House of Camden, Shanas began to think about what an awareness and fundraising event could do for the people he served. So, he began researching how like-minded groups conducted sleepouts before.

With guidance from Watson, the plan came together over many months. On Nov. 14, 80 college students came and listened to hours of lectures and testimony from formerly homeless people and employees from Joseph’s House. The students took part in workshops designed to help them think more consciously about the way the homeless are treated in their city. Finally, it was time to head outside.

For one cold night, with Rutgers University Police looking on, Shanas and 20 students bundled up on cardboard and slept outside. It was illuminating, Shanas believes, but not for the reason you might expect; harshness of the situation aside, each of the students knew that a quick warm-up or a bathroom in a campus building was steps away. What would it be like not to have those options? In the morning, students reconvened for reflection.

Shanas was happy with the event, though he continues on his fundraising campaign with a goal of $10,000. For Watson, the event was another example of Shanas’ commitment to service.

“This event was better than some of what I’ve seen our own faculty or staff put together,” she said.

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