UK’s ‘Cardboard Village Simulation’ mocks realities of homelessness

As you may know, this week UK and 500 other universities across the country are participating in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ “National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless’ website, “Participating in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week not only brings greater awareness to your community, but also helps to promote the national endeavor to end hunger and homelessness.”

While I agree that it is incredibly, incredibly important that Americans understand the enormity of the hunger and homelessness problems in this country, I feel specific events organized at UK this week may hurt the cause much more than help it.

More specifically, and most saliently, I find many problems with the Friday night’s “Cardboard Village Simulation” event.

According to UKNow’s website, “At Cardboard Village, UK students will build their homes for the night out of cardboard and duct tape only, and then sleep overnight on Haggin Field to experience homelessness.”

Excuse me, what?!

“Experience homelessness”?! These people are kidding, right?

Students will “build” temporary “homes” (Is it really a “home” if you leave your real, temperature-controlled home, stay in it for several hours and then return chez-toi?) out of cardboard — ostensibly provided for them, of course (lest we have any students picking through dumpsters for their own cardboard) — with indubitably myriad other privileged college students, all on the luxurious, well-groomed field of their state’s flagship university.

And that’s not all.

As if to add insult to injury, “Dinner and water (undoubtedly bottled) will be provided …”

Wait, there’s more!

“Participating students and groups will have the chance to win gift cards, so register now!”

(Whoah … For a second there, I thought I wouldn’t be getting anything in return for roughing the elements Friday night.)

Is the goal of this honestly to “learn what it’s like to be homeless for one night”? Because, I’m sorry, this is not what it feels like to be homeless for a night.

If you want to know what it’s really like to be homeless for night, you need not look far at all.

You may have heard in the news recently that, according to the Oct. 31 Shelter Census, the homeless rates in New York have reached the highest ever (yes, including the Great Depression) at 42,204 people (and these estimates are conservative). More than 40 percent of these individuals are children.

Yet understand that these monstrous rates are in no way distributed uniformly.

A 2008 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors revealed the extremely skewed demographics of the U.S. homeless population, at 42 percent African-American, 39 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Native American.

Moreover, the study found 26 percent of homeless people are considered mentally ill, while 13 percent of homeless individuals were physically disabled.

Nineteen percent of single homeless people are victims of domestic violence, while 13 percent are veterans.

Nineteen percent of homeless people are employed. Yes, you read that correctly. Almost one-fifth of the homeless in the U.S. are employed.

And, unlike the “homeless” in UK’s Cardboard Village, the real homeless don’t receive much help.

A 2007 study (and homelessness has gotten much worse since then) conducted by the same organization found that 12 of the 23 cities surveyed had to turn people in need of shelter away because of space.

Overall, a 2007 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty study found that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.

These rates are many times larger than any other industrialized country — and significantly larger than those of all of the countries in the European Union combined.

And things are not getting better.

The Oct. 31 Shelter Census further found that the number of homeless families has nearly doubled over the past decade, and women and children are the largest growing groups.

So how exactly is the Cardboard Village helping “end hunger and homelessness?” How exactly is it attempting to ameliorate any of these preposterously high homeless rates?

Homelessness is an incredibly serious problem — and this isn’t even touching upon hunger, which is equally exorbitant, if not more so — and having a “let’s pretend we’re homeless party” gives students the wrong impression of what it’s really like, of how extraordinarily difficult, painful and terrifying it is, to be homeless.

The truth is, Cardboard Village is not a homelessness simulation; it is an outside slumber party.

It is the commoditization of hunger and homelessness.

Upon first hearing of it, I immediately thought of a scene from the film “Roger and Me” when a so-called “Jailhouse Rock” open house party is held in which essentially solely upper-class white individuals dress-up and stay overnight in the freshly-cleaned, atypically over-furnished cells of a newly-constructed jailhouse.

Just as we all know jail (let alone prison) is not this easy, not this fun, not this comfortable, we all know homelessness is nothing like what will occur at the Cardboard Village this Friday night.

Let’s hope it rains. Or snows. Or hails. (Or the police raid the encampment.)

Then maybe, just maybe, the students will have a taste of what it’s really like to be homeless.

For just one night, of course.