by Mike Keefe-Feldman

It sounded simple enough: spend the night in a cardboard box and raise money for Family Promise North Shore Boston, which works with faith communities across the North Shore to provide temporary shelter and services to families experiencing homelessness. Going into it, I didn’t think it would be a very challenging night. I was wrong.

My wife Kathleen and my two kids joined me for the event at Patton Park in Hamilton. It was summer, so we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone freezing, and there was a police officer on duty at the event so safety was as guaranteed as possible. The kids helped by making a fundraising video and we raised more than $1,000 from some very generous friends and family. All of us were upbeat about the evening; it wouldn’t be much different than a camping trip for a good cause, we figured. And at first, that’s how it felt. There were several wonderful musicians, a playground, even cookies to eat. Then night came.

The first thing I hadn’t counted on was the mosquitoes. Even with bug spray applied (which in hindsight was probably “cheating” on our “homelessness”), they bombarded our eardrums every few minutes, assuring that none of us were going to sleep soundly, or, in the case of Kathleen and I, at all.

Next came the rain. At first it was just a sprinkling and my kids seemed to be sleeping through it. As soon as it got harder, we made the decision to send the kids home. We didn’t want to cross the line from “learning experience” to “psychological trauma” with them. Kathleen rushed them to the car as they carried their belongings with them in search of a dry place to rest. They drove home talking about how that wouldn’t have been an option if we were really homeless.

Now I was alone and starting to get progressively more wet. While I was happy that my young kids were now warm and dry, I thought long and hard about what it would be like if they didn’t have a home to go back to. My family have left me, but they didn’t *leave* leave me. I’d see them tomorrow. But if we were really homeless…well, that’s part of why the work of Family Promise is so valuable. Keeping families together.

The rain got harder and my cardboard box shelter started to give way. I thought about taking a hot shower the next day. The hope of a normal tomorrow made it tolerable, but what if I had no such hope? What if I knew tomorrow would be just more of the same? This, more than anything, is what hit me hardest: hope makes nearly anything bearable, but without it, what would I use as my personal motivation? Martin Luther said that “everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” Beyond shelter and services, Family Promise brings that critical hope to those most in need of it.

Eventually, discomfort gave way to boredom. I got out of what was left of the box and walked several laps around the park. I had a long chat with the police officer on duty, who was very nice. Later, I thought about how his protocol may have been different if I wasn’t just “playing homeless” for the night with the understanding that I’d pack up and leave in the morning. If I was truly homeless, his job would probably be to move me–to shield the community from viewing a living embodiment of the poverty that most of us with stable housing would prefer not to see. Most likely he’d take me to a shelter where my overnight safety might be largely dependent on the mental health level of whoever else might be there that night.

At one point I fell asleep in a covered dugout at the adjacent baseball field for 20 minutes, but mostly I stood around or walked around the park waiting for sunrise. I wanted to go home. Who wouldn’t?

In the light of day, I could see that our cardboard box was thoroughly soaked, along with the blankets we had brought. A fellow Cardboard Box City resident, Linda Goodspeed (read her account of the night here), interviewed me in the morning, taking video on her phone, and I put on a good face for the camera because I didn’t want to scare people away from participating next year. I said it was fun. That wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t exactly true either. It was fun up until a certain point, after which it was decidedly miserable. But who would turn out if I said “Come be miserable with me next year?” Of course it might not rain next time.

Ultimately, though, the rain provided a valuable service. It turned the night from a clever fundraiser into something that felt real deep down in my damp bones. As I packed up my soggy items, I surveyed Patton Park—the American flag, the World War II tank monument. I thought about what our brave veterans have fought to preserve and protect. Did they fight for some Americans to have four homes while others have not one?

It can be tempting to throw one’s hands up in the air when faced with such massive inequity. Ultimately, public policy solutions are required, as it should not be the responsibility of a network of faith communities to fully address that which is fundamentally an issue for government to take up. But until that day comes, we have real homelessness to deal with right now, and we can’t give up, and Family Promise North Shore Boston won’t give up. Instead we battle homelessness one family at a time, helping parents get back on their feet while making sure kids can continue attending their usual school while they lack a home. If that sounds like something you’d like to support, please join us at this upcoming event:

Walk to End Homelessness

Saturday, October 21, 2017

8 a.m.-11 a.m.

Lynch Park in Beverly