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Sierra College students take on homelessness

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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Sierra College student Chris Felner thought it would be fun to sleep out under the stars on campus. It turned out to be a freezing night in 2009 and he had to figure out how to shape a cardboard box around him to stay warm. “It was cold,” Felner said. It is an annual social experiment at Sierra College used to expose students to the harsh reality of homelessness. This year’s event held last week had warm temperatures, but a light rain to soak the students. “It’s an opportunity for a teaching moment,” Sierra anthropology professor Jay Hester said. He helped put on this year’s Sleep Out event, where nearly 50 students camped for two nights then created projects and displayed them during class time in the quad area, or open space near the cafeteria. The cardboard village, as it’s called, is the students’ best guess at how a homeless camp would look and feel like. Refrigerator boxes were placed against trees and lamp poles, some with sleeping bags others with tarps tied together. “This is not an accurate representation of how a homeless person would build a structure,” Hester said. “The only way they are going to get that experience is to actually be homeless.” Students Taking on Poverty President A.J. Singh admits he didn’t know anyone who was homeless before he saw the event last year. Now he’s organized a group to combat it in anyway possible. “When 20,000 students come on to campus, I want them to see this,” Singh said. “I learned a lot.” Hester said this may be the only way many affluent Rocklin students get exposed to a very public problem. “There was a time when Placer County was known for dumping its homeless into Sacramento County when they came out of hospitals or were on the street,” Hester said. “I don’t know if it’s like that today, but regardless, I feel a large portion of our students are not exposed to the homeless problem.” Statistics from the Placer County Department of Health and Human Services taken before the great recession began counted 405 homeless people identified living on the streets, shelters or in cars. Last year that number had risen to 616. They admit many more are unaccounted for and some couch surf with relatives like Felner’s brother. “People think it’s someone else’s problem,” Felner said. “It’s easy to not see it. A lot of times it is not their choice to be homeless.” In fact, statistics show 71 percent of Placer County homeless lived in foster care and more than half were abused as a child or an adult. Less than half of those surveyed admitted having a mental illness. Eighty-nine percent have current or past substance abuse, according to the report on Homelessness in Placer County. The report shows many homeless are of all ages, sex and races, some have college degrees and many are children without government aid. Hester’s message is get to know the problem head-on. “We would love for everyone who is going through this experience to be aware and get involved,” Hester said. For Felner, his experience last year has spurred him to return this year to teach other students how he’s gotten involved. Once a month, he distributes food to the homeless near the Salvation Army. His church also has a bike ministry that repairs and helps maintain bikes belonging to the homeless. “It makes me feel good because I know it’s something I would want someone to do for me,” Felner said. “Especially in this economy, people should care about homeless (people) because it could easily happen to you.”