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Volunteers camp out in boxes in effort to raise awareness of homelessness

Teenagers and a few adults slept in appliance cartons on the Medaille College campus Saturday night to call attention to the continuing problem of homelessness in the Buffalo area.

As a bitter wind blew a few snowflakes through the air and temperatures sank toward the freezing mark, the participants got a bit of the true homeless experience.

“It certainly helps with the awareness part,” said Laura Genco of Family Promise of Western New York, the organization that set up Saturday’s sleep-out. “We weren’t planning on it when we made it for the end of April, but we embrace whatever’s going to happen. The homeless don’t have a choice.”

According to Genco, families make up 40 percent of the homeless population in Erie County.

About 20 people signed up for the activity, which was to last until 8 a.m. today.

Many were teenage parishioners from SS. Columba-Brigid and St. Ann Catholic parishes. However, Genco said, this was not a Catholic activity.

“It used to be called the Interfaith Hospitality Network,” she said. “It’s a bunch of churches – I think we have 17 at this time – that house homeless families, and we help them get back on their feet. We help them find housing, jobs, and we give them shelter and feed them for as long as they need.”

The money raised was to be applied to those services. Sleepers were asked to raise at least $50 in pledges for their night on the grass in “Cardboard Box City,” as the encampment was dubbed.

“It shows my children ... you can have everything in life and someday become homeless, and this is what you might do,” said Mary Montes of South Buffalo, a Head Start teacher.

Marilyn Sozanski of the Town of Tonawanda, one of the adults who has been affiliated with Family Promise since it started in 1996, said this fundraiser was the first of its kind for the group.

“We’re not trying to imitate being homeless, pretend that we’re homeless. We’re trying to raise awareness for people who don’t have a home, who have to sleep in places that are uncomfortable,” Sozanski said.

Mary Montes’ son, Freddy, 19, arrived prepared for the elements.

“I got three pairs of pants on, two sweaters, a sweatshirt, some gloves, and I’ve got my hat on,” he said. “I think I’ll make it.”

He planned to use a sleeping bag and place a tarp on the ground under his box for added warmth. He also brought two friends, a parish youth group leader and his sister.

Sozanski said that while other organizations sheltering the homeless have a 30-day limit, Family Promise houses families in member churches “until they’re stable.”

Family Promise has a daytime center on Glendhu Place in South Buffalo, but the families being aided spend nights and weekends with the participating churches.

“They work with a case manager on whatever needs they have, so once they get a home, they can stay in that home,” Sozanski said. “We work with faith-based groups, but Family Promise is not faith-based.”

Evelyn Hamilton, event and conference planner for Medaille, said the sleep-out between the Main Building and Sullivan Center was a first for the college.

“This is the first year, but it won’t be the last,” Mary Montes said. “I’m going to do this every year from now on. It’s for a good cause. … Maybe next year we’ll have warmer weather.”