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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, September 25, 2022

Only people can make things happen

The man announced he was a felon, fresh out of prison. Forty college students looked back, turning around in their seats on the muddy lawn of Library Mall. They had been listening to some experts on hunger and homelessness, but then this man appeared'standing at the rear, out of the light, his release papers in hand. 

 

 

 

He said he was made a free man the day before. He said he's just gotten a job. He said he still has nowhere to live. And though he spoke angrily of this injustice, his tone softened as he tugged the short length of his second-hand jacket and pulled a brand-new sweatshirt from his brand-new book bag. 

 

 

 

He thanked the crowd, assembled for the Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out, for his new possessions. 

 

 

 

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\Someone got wind of this [effort],"" he said, shaking his bag with emphasis. ""This just don't happen."" Then he walked away. 

 

 

 

It matters little that his words of gratitude are most likely misdirected. His words remind us of a simple truth too often forgotten: People make things happen. 

 

 

 

It's a powerful lesson, perhaps most important among lessons of the night. The sleep-out, held to promote awareness of two pieces of legislation that will help homeless find affordable homes, was part of an awareness week that taught people the staggering toll of this tragedy: Some 4,700 people stayed in Madison shelters last year, with countless thousands homeless across the nation. 

 

 

 

All those numbers are irrelevant, however, because all that matters is one. One person can change the life of one other. That is the elegant math behind the man's statement of thanks and the basis of the volunteer spirit. It is that spirit, that strange and wonderful human impulse, that inspires UW-Madison students'some in Wisconsin sweatshirts, some smoking cigarettes'to settle in for a night on the muddied ground, the hard pavement or, for the lucky, a flattened cardboard box.  

 

 

 

But where does this impulse come from? To one participant, Will Sebern, the sleep-out was just another experience in a larger awakening. 

 

 

 

At one point during the night, a homeless man approached Sebern and asked if he could have a box to sleep on. Sebern said it was fine, and then remembered his mom had given him a bag full of bagels for the long night. He offered them to the man. 

 

 

 

""Do you like asiago cheese? It's a good bagel,"" Sebern said. ""They're nice and warm, too."" 

 

 

 

The scene sounds contrived, stinking of hokey fakery or self-promotion, but Sebern is genuine. You can hear it in the honesty of his story: He was caught drinking in his dorm one October night freshman year. He was ticketed, went to court and was sentenced to a fine and eight hours of community service. In retrospect, he said, it was ""the greatest thing ever."" 

 

 

 

Sebern worked nights at the men's homeless shelter near the Capitol. There, he saw men who worked just as hard as everyone else but didn't have a place to live. He saw one homeless man take off his gloves and give them to someone he felt needed them more. 

 

 

 

""However you imagined homeless people to be before'the guys you see on the street that are drunk, always asking for money, loud and whatever'those are the stereotypes,"" Sebern explained. ""I went up there, and these guys [who pass through the shelter] are so humble. You can tell it is degrading to sleep in a shelter. ... You can just tell how much pride they have to swallow in order to ask people for help."" 

 

 

 

The next semester, he joined the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group and this year, as a sophomore, he is the co-coordinator of the Hunger and Homelessness Campaign for the organization. Though he grew up in Cedarburg, in ""one of the richest counties per capita in the country,"" he said he doesn't act out of guilt'which he views as unhealthy. Compassion is what drives him. 

 

 

 

And then there's the coordinator of the sleep-out, Elan Kriegel, a tall junior in an old cap that features the image of Martin Luther King Jr. He recalled his childhood in Los Angeles, attending parades in honor of King, handing out blankets at the beaches and marveling at the poorer kids who had to wake early and come home late because they bussed across town to his school. And he talked about his father, who is a rabbi and who is, more importantly, a person who serves others. 

 

 

 

He told these stories with the pace and wildness of a flash flood, ideas and words spilling in an uncontrolled rush'a manifestation of the boundless energies that make our generation just as vital as young people in any heroic age. It's that energy that must be directed, more than ever, at the myriad problems our country faces. 

 

 

 

""If you're the most extreme conservative, or if you're the most extreme liberal, or if you're just like Joe Schmo'you've got something to do,"" Kriegel said. 

 

 

 

Now, during a time of a national identity crisis, on the heels of President Bush's call for volunteers and amid all the facile flag-waving, Americans must remember that we've all got something to do. After all, ""things just don't happen."" 

 

 

 

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