It’s a safe bet that none of the 50 or so people who camped out Thursday night at Central City Park assumed their experience equated with what it means to be homeless.
All of them came to the park with sleeping bags, tents, coats, food and water, flashlights and cellphones. If any problems had arisen, their vehicles were only about 100 yards away.
Still, the various local officials and religious leaders who camped out at least were able to get a taste of what it must be like to be homeless, especially when temperatures dipped into the 20s.
The event was put together by Daybreak Center, a local organization supported by a cross-section of Macon religious houses of worship, as a way to both raise money for the organization and raise awareness of the problems of the homeless.
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Stacey Harwell, minister of community building at Centenary United Methodist Church, described the experience of being out there as “a privileged experience of one night of cold.”
“I know I have a warm house to come back to,” she said. “There are folks who do this on a regular basis. I have friends with tents (and supplies); not everybody has all that. ... I don’t want to say I experienced homelessness, because I don’t have any anxiety -- I have a warm bed to go home to.”
Depaul USA board member Kay Gerhardt talks about the first ever Greater Macon Sleepout fundraiser to benefit Daybreak. Video by Jason Vorhees
Organizers worked with the Macon-Bibb County Parks & Recreation Department to have small bonfires built and keep the park’s bathrooms open, and there was security present.
Several local organizations, including Mercer University, The Medical Center of Central Georgia and Geico, also had representatives who camped out.
“It’s a nice event,” said Scott Markel, regional vice president for Geico. “It’s a little cold, but it’s for a good cause. The cold adds to what we’re doing. ... It does give you an appreciation of what you have. It was interesting meeting with folks that do have to go through this. What can we do to give them a better start?”
Kay Gerhardt, a board member of Depaul USA, Daybreak’s parent organization, said the idea for the campout came from Australia, where a homeless organization held a similar campout to raise awareness and funds.
Gerhardt said the people who camped out Thursday were asked to donate or raise $1,000 for the shelter to hire a second counselor. Gerhardt said the initial event should raise about $50,000.
“This sleepout has been done in Australia for a number of years,” she said. “It’s an event that makes a lot of money. We thought it sounded like a really good idea. It can be a fundraiser, but also an awareness-raiser. We’re bringing in community leaders to help them find out about the problems of the homeless in Macon. ... The idea is to get people to agree to be uncomfortable for one night.”
Chuck Levesque, executive director of Depaul USA, also participated in the campout. He said Macon is the first of Daybreak’s American locations -- which include Philadelphia, St. Louis and New Orleans -- to attempt an event like this.
A layer of frost spoke of the cold, hard truth of homelessness for those spending the night at Central City Park for Daybreak's Greater Macon Sleepout. Video by Liz Fabian
“I think it’s been a great success,” he said. “People experience a small part of the homeless experience. ... (The cold weather) makes it authentically uncomfortable -- I think that’s a good thing. You can experience the uncomfortable feeling the homeless experience regularly themselves. This (event) is something we definitely want to continue in Macon.”
Gerhardt said the community buy-in has been strong for a first-time event.
“We’ve gotten amazing support for our first event,” she said. “We hope to do this annually and make it our signature event.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.