BY: ALEXIS ARNOLD & MARIAH ESPADA
American University students slept on the quad Thursday night for#SleepOutAU, a charity and awareness event that's caused some controversy for its attempt to show solidarity with homeless youth.
Sleep Out AU is a part of a national initiative coordinated by Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the U.S. that provides housing and support services to homeless youth. They sponsor "Sleep Out" events nationwide to raise money for and show solidarity with homeless youth. Sleep Out AU was the first one held at a university.
Participants slept on the quad from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m with their warmest clothing, bedding, sleeping bags and AU IDs in tow. Event organizers supplied cardboard boxes for students to use.
It was announced prior to kickoff that the Mary Graydon Center Tavern would be an alternative place for students to sleep if the temperature and windchill were too cold. This alternative is both D.C. and Covenant House protocol to offer to the homeless, so it was extended to students instead.
People like AU Student Government President Taylor Dumpson were in attendance, as well as Kogod sophomore Jade Marie who vocalized mixed emotions in regards to the event. "I participated because I genuinely believe it's for a good cause," said Marie. "While I felt like there were good intentions, I do personally wish there was more of an opportunity for individuals to actual[ly] learn about the homeless population within the District."
Although more than 50 students attended the Sleep Out AU vigil, many others found it to be "performative allyship." Sophomore Ryan Marsan chose not to participate because he felt the event to be "out of touch" with the reality that many homeless people face. He said he feels there are better ways to spread awareness about homelessness.
"If we truly care about supporting homeless individuals, we should be elevating their voices rather than speaking for them," said Marsan. "While the intentions of participants may have been good, I believe events like this...can trivialize homelessness as â€˜not that bad' among a student body that, largely, has little class-awareness as it is."
Sophomore Jarrod Jeffcoat has experienced homelessness himself and had some concerns. He said he was not looking to criticize the organizer's efforts but was worried about how the event alters public understanding of the issue.
"[Sleep Out AU] does not represent the reality that I encountered during my period of homelessness and severely distorts the perception of homeless youth," said Jeffcoat. "Advocacy cannot manifest itself in performance, especially when the performance does not represent reality."
Sleep Out AU is not just a one night event, but a semester-long campaign run by Professor Gemma Puglisi's Public Relations Portfolio class. Students worked with Covenant House as if they were a PR firm working with a non-profit client. They created social media campaigns and organized other events that would benefit Covenant house, such as a panel discussion on homeless youth, fundraising efforts and a clothing drive.
Professor Puglisi, who helped organize the event and participated in it, feels their intentions were misunderstood. "We could have not done the Sleep Outâ€¦and honestly I don't think that would have been impactful," said Puglisi. "If we even got one person to think about...teen homelessness that may want to go to Covenant House and volunteer. Even if it's just one person, I feel like we succeeded in that."
The event garnered significant support from the university and even from President Burwell. After Sophomore Robert Thomas saw Burwell's tweet in support of #SleepOutAU, he tweeted his concerns to her account as well as the Covenant House account. Covenant House sent several responses via Twitter saying they were holding the event to raise money for homeless LGBT youth and encouraged Thomas to send them an email so they could have a conversation that was not confined to "character limits."
Thomas sent a detailed email that addressed his issues with the event and asked for other service opportunities to benefit homeless youth. He felt the response tweets did not directly answer any of his points and has yet to receive a response from Covenant house to his email.
While mixed emotions continue to stir post-event, #SleepOutAU announced the event ranked fourth in the country for Covenant House's nationwide sleep out events. The original fundraising goal of $1,000 was surpassed as donations amounted to $2,770.American University and Covenant House will also host a charity basketball game on Friday, December 1 a portion of proceeds from the Washington Wizards vs. Detroit Pistons game will also be donated to Covenant House.