Photo by Cassandra Bauer | Staff Photographer
Reggie’s Sleepout began at 3 p.m. on Oct. 22 with people coming to claim their spots on the field and register for the “boxed-in contest,” which is exactly what it sounds like: people building temporary shelters out of cardboard in a competition to see who can come up with the best design.
The contest gives participants an idea of what it feels like to live in the type of structures and conditions that the homeless population experiences every night.
“It’s pretty neat to see the themes,” said Toby O’Berry, director of Iowa Homeless Youth Center. “We have groups that come back year after year: different churches, organizations, and clubs. They work on their theme for months. We’ve had unique ones where a group designed a tank and they were going to fight homelessness.”
At the event, there were boxed-in structures built to represent a number of things, most notably the replica of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and the Joppa Tiny Home-inspired mini-camp set up by a number of Des Moines University students.
“Our box village was inspired by Joppa’s Tiny Home that they have suggested as a possible plan for Des Moines,” Julia Blue said, a second year medical student at Des Moines University. “Whether that happens here or not we just love the idea and we wanted to replicate it here.”
Youth and Shelter Services (YSS) has been a huge component in the fight against homeless youth since its official inception in 1976. Reggie’s Sleepout has grown to be one of the biggest outpours of community support the non-profit has found.
“We typically have around 1,000 people sleep out,” O’Berry said. “The average donation is about $50 per camp, so it’s really grassroots, friends asking friends, just small gifts, which means the community is really embracing the cause.”
In 2001, the young man named Reggie Kelsey aged out of the foster care system in Iowa and died three and a half months later while camping by the Des Moines River.
The response by Youth and Shelter Services was to implement an aftercare system that would give young men in Reggie’s age range a chance after they aged out of the system.
The sleep-out is the main source of funds for the programs that has been implemented in the light of Reggie’s story.
“We typically raise from anywhere between $100,000 to $140,000 from just this one event,” O’Berry said. “100 percent of that goes directly to supporting our youth, so it allows us to (do) some of the work we do that maybe can’t be funded by a grant or isn’t funded by a grant.”
One such program, offered by YSS and Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, is their Transitional Living Program, which offers people ages 16-21 safe housing in order to focus on more pressing things like education and employment.
“People say, ‘Well, if they just went out and got a job…’ but it’s not that easy,” YSS Board Member Mary Oliver said. “It’s not a matter of making them comfortable being homeless, the goal is to get them out of homelessness.”
Mary Oliver has been present at all 11 sleep-outs and was involved in the planning meeting for the very first sleep-out.
“The big issue is awareness,” Oliver said. “There are so many people who have no idea that we have homeless young adults in Iowa, they say, ‘No, that doesn’t happen here’ They become aware of the issue and some of the issues around how it is that kids become homeless, and how they get out of homelessness.”
At the time this article was written, Iowa Homeless Youth Center had reached over $90,000 of their $150,000 goal. Since the sleep-out began in 2005, over $1.4 million have been raised to battle youth homelessness in the Des Moines area and the state of Iowa.