LEWISTOWN - As the sun sinks on the horizon and darkness falls over downtown Lewistown, most area residents settle into the comfort of their homes. But under glowing street lights and twinkling stars, a group of local teenagers will find temporary shelter in cardboard boxes in the middle of town.
On Wednesday, youth ages 10 to 17 from First United Methodist Church will spend one night on the street in a fundraising effort to help prevent homelessness. Armed with only a box and a pillow, the youth will learn about living on the street and explore their feelings through small group interactions.
Wilda Fisher, of Shelter Services Inc., said the ministry will help bring awareness to what may seem like an invisible need in Mifflin and Juniata counties.
Photo submitted by WILDA FISHER
The youth group from First United Methodist Church in Lewistown prepares to spend Wednesday night in cardboard boxes in downtown Lewistown. The Lewistown Police and adult volunteers will patrol the area while the youth experience a night on the streets. Pictured above are youth group members, from left to right, Steven Rinninger, Justin Lynch and Jared Hannon; sitting, Jordan Renninger.
"I think all too often, we don't see homeless people in this town," she said, explaining that homeless families may go unrecognized as they bunk with friends or set up tents at local campgrounds.
While there are not usually homeless living on street corners, the need for community assistance is ongoing and covers a variety of areas, Fisher said. She added that funding is important, but not a solution to the problem.
"It seems like we're always asking for money. It's easy to just give, but it doesn't take care of it," she said.
Identifying the reason an individual has been displaced offers better insight to how the community can help the person become self sufficient. Fisher hopes the youth develop this understanding during their night on the street.
"I would hope this would instill in (the youth) a passion to find out why the person is homeless ... really talk to people," she said. "There's always something they can do."
At 3 p.m. Wednesday, the youth will trade their cell phones and electronic devices for one cardboard box and a pillow. They will set up shelters in the parking lot behind The Bon-Ton and stay until Thursday morning. A soup kitchen will be set up in the Lumina Center, where the youth will be offered soup, bread, a piece of fruit or a cookie and bottled water.
"We wanted the kids to see how important it is to help others," Julie Hannon, First United Methodist youth leader, said. "They think everything comes so easily to them. We wanted them to learn respect, responsibility."
Throughout the evening, the youth will be visited by individuals in the community who will talk with them about the importance of outreach and community assistance.
"In rural Pennsylvania, our homelessness is not people sleeping on the streets. It's people doubled up, from couch to couch, wherever they can find a clear spot to sleep," Allison Fisher, Mifflin Juniata Human Services director, said.
While the youth experience a night on the street, the Department of Human Services will be conducting their bi-annual Point in Time Unsheltered County survey. Fisher said the survey determines eligibility for federal funding and is typically conducted in January, making it difficult to accurately count homeless individuals in Mifflin and Juniata counties.
"We're very, very excited about this August count," Fisher said.
The department is seeking volunteers to help with the survey. Volunteers will meet for the Mifflin County survey at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Lewistown Borough Police Office on Brown Street in Lewistown. After brief training, pairs and groups will visit specified spots designated by the department to identify and offer help to homeless in the area. For the Juniata County survey, volunteers will meet at the same time in the CJEMS Community Room in Mifflintown.
For those who are unable to donate their time to the survey, the community is invited to visit the youth in the parking lot. The youth will accept donations that will go directly to Shelter Services Inc.
"I am really excited that the church here in Mifflin County has decided to do the youth event," Allison Fisher said.
From spending a night in cardboard boxes to volunteering with Human Services, local individuals hope to make a difference in the community this week.
For more information about volunteering for the Point in Time survey, call Patty Donaldson at the Mifflin Juniata Human Services office at 242-5452.
The youth group at First United Methodist Church also encourages other youth groups of all faiths to join them in one voice against homelessness. For more information, contact the church at 248-4618.