NORMAN — As temperatures dipped below freezing, 24 young people huddled in cardboard boxes near Antioch Church, with nothing but a blanket or sleeping bag to keep themselves warm.
Lacking pillows, they slept with their heads on their arms or on the thin layer of cardboard separating them from the cold pavement. The only source of warmth was a small metal fire pit, set safely back from the box encampment.
On every other day of the year, the youths might sleep inside a house, in their own beds. But on Friday night, they were homeless. Their goal: to raise awareness of homelessness in Oklahoma and broaden their own understanding of what it would mean to live on the street.
Night in a Box was the ninth annual event created by Community Action Missions, a faith-based community service group. The volunteers were from the organization or other groups, as well as people who heard about the event and wanted to join in.
Night in a Box is also a fundraiser for nonprofit groups through donations collected by the participants. This year's event raised more than $1,300 for Mission Norman and Bridges, two agencies that serve the homeless.
Many of the participants have been involved with Night in a Box for several years. Alysa Hooper, who has been involved with Community Action Missions since its creation, has taken part in Night in a Box every year.
“Even if I've done it before, it still reminds me of everything I lose sight of during the year,” said Hooper, an Oklahoma State University freshman.
The event began inside Antioch Church, where participants listened to guest speakers. Director Debra Krittenbrink and Jefte Lobano, of Bridges, spoke about their organization, which serves homeless teenagers.
Bridges provides income-based apartments as well as guidance and career coaching to high school youths living alone.
The Rev. Dusty Buff, of Grace Church, spoke of an experience when he and an assistant pastor went “homeless” for 10 days. He commended participants for being willing to undertake a similar challenge.
Night in a Box participants stood in line to receive a meal of soup made from a mix of the canned vegetables they had brought, and saltine crackers. Participants were asked not to eat the day of the event to gain a better perspective of common issues faced by the homeless.
After dinner, they acted out scenarios under which a person might become homeless. Then they went outside to sleep in their cardboard shelters.
Participants were allowed to move inside the church building if temperatures became too extreme. However, despite the cold weather, nearly every participant spent the entire night outside.
Macy Bratcher, an eighth-grader, and her brother Max, a ninth-grader, were among the repeat participants. This was Max's fourth year and Macy's third.
“You feel part of what the homeless people go through, so you can really sympathize,” Macy said.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were nearly 5,000 people living homeless in Oklahoma in 2009.
Ryan Clement, a sixth-grader, said it was his first year to participate and was an enlightening experience.
“It makes you wonder what it would feel like to really have to live like this,” he said.