FAIRBANKS (AP) — It had been a long time since Tracyann George had to spend a night on the street, but she did it once more recently. As she crafted a makeshift shelter of cardboard boxes, she checked to make sure her 8-, 6-, 4- and 2-year-old children hadn’t wandered too far.
For a portion of George’s childhood, she had no choice but to live on the streets, but this time it was different. This time she was bedding down in a park not out of necessity but as an act of free will.
George was one of several dozen who volunteered to spend the night in Veterans Memorial park Sept. 13 to raise awareness of youth homelessness and to raise money for Fairbanks Youth Advocates. The organization operates The Door, a 24-hour shelter at 138 10th Ave. open to any homeless youth younger than 18.
The 40 or so volunteers occupying the park were there to participate in the FYA event, “One Homeless Night.” Participants arrived at the park about 7 p.m. with building supplies, mostly salvaged cardboard. At 9 p.m., the group split into smaller teams and began constructing the cardboard shanties in which they would sleep through the night.
“It’s not necessarily a realistic homeless youth experience … but it still gives you the idea of you have no utilities around you. You don’t have a bathroom that you can just go to. You don’t necessarily have a fridge you can just go to,” Meryem Kugzruk said. “It does get realistic in some ways but not completely.”
Kugzruk, 19, is the youngest member of Fairbanks Youth Advocates board of directors. She has served on the board for three years, transitioning from the board’s youth representative to a full member with voting rights when she turned 18.
She led the effort to organize the event, and has more knowledge of its workings than anyone else with FYA. This was the first year the organization had run the event, but it wasn’t the first time it had taken place. This year was the third time Kugzruk and others had slept in the park to raise money.
“The first year I was a junior, so yeah I was definitely not sure of what was going to happen, because you always hear stories about what downtown Fairbanks might be like, but it was really cool also to see all the different people who participated and care about the youth of Fairbanks,” Kugzruk said. “The first year it was so cold … we were freezing and I don’t think we were really prepared.”
One year it snowed. That wasn’t a problem for the group this time, as the temperature never fell below 51 degrees.
For the first two years, One Homeless Night was organized by members of several local youth groups, but Fairbanks Youth Advocates took the reins this year with the help of Kugzruk.
Each of the first two years, the event had raised about $5,000 for the organization. This year, though, FYA’s Executive Director Marylee Bates said she’s optimistic the event might raise much more. The goal for this year’s event was to double attendance, which has happened. Registration each of the previous two years was closer to 20.
Volunteers for the event raise money by soliciting sponsorships for their homeless night. This year the event had its first corporate sponsors, but much of the money still comes from community donations. Bates said FYA added an option this year where community members can go online, see the list of participants and donate directly to their efforts from the organization’s website at fairbanksyouthadvocates.org/2014/09/04/one-homeless-night/.
Bates said she and The Door’s staff talked with some of the teenagers at the shelter about the event and what its purpose was. The teenagers helped the staff put together survival kits to hand out to the participants. The idea behind the survival kits, Bates said, is to give a glimpse of the everyday difficulties faced by homeless youths.
For example, the kits contained a toothbrush but no toothpaste, a can of soup but no way to heat it, a single hand warmer and other mismatched items.
“Homelessness is not convenient,” Bates said. “It’s not easy and it certainly isn’t fun, even though we’re having a lot of fun tonight.”