Right on the Money: Get People to Sleep Out for Your Cause

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Photograph of a young person standing among tents on an athletic field.

Nothing gets people to understand what someone else is going through better than experiencing it for themselves. That’s why organizations across the country are asking people in their communities to spend a night sleeping out in the cold in a cardboard box.

These “sleep outs” have raised thousands of dollars and garnered tons of awareness for the plight of homeless youth and families.

The events aren’t hard to organize, says Sondra Jackson, Safe Place Outreach Specialist at Youth Service System, a runaway and homeless youth program in Wheeling, WV, that raised $27,160 at its first sleep out, held in November.

Photograph of a castle made from cardboard boxes.

Jackson planned the event in just five weeks, but she says it wouldn’t have been possible without an outpouring of support from the people, businesses and organizations of Wheeling.

“This was a community-wide success,” she says. “It was a way to bring together people in the community who don’t normally engage with us.”

Photograph of young people assembling a cardboard castle on an athletic field.

Winter’s a good time to host this kind of event, she says, because it’s cold and people feel the suffering of homeless youth. Here are Jackson’s tips for organizing a sleep out in the coldest months: 

Get in-kind support. Youth Service System’s one expense was the registration and fund-raising website they set up for sleep-out participants. Local businesses donated the food that was provided during the sleep-out, and Wheeling Jesuit University donated their soccer field for the event. Other supporters donated t-shirts and prizes to participants.

Recruit volunteers. Volunteers were recruited by word of mouth and on the sleep-out website. Many teams came from nearby colleges, universities and businesses. The teams raised money from friends and family.

Photograph of a fully assembled cardboard castle on the athletic field.Collaborate with other service providers. The Salvation Army’s mobile canteen parked at the soccer field and provided hot drinks on the night of the event. “Two of the individuals that worked in the canteen are homeless,” Jackson says. “They were able to talk to the youth participants about being homeless and staying in school, asking for help and why being homeless isn’t the best case scenario.”

Market your event. Youth Service System publicized its sleep out by sending press releases to local news outlets. Jackson also heavily used social media, putting updates on her organization’s Facebook page and website, and on the event website. She also thought that it was important to coordinate the event with National Runaway Prevention Month.

Involve youth and formerly homeless people. A youth intern designed the sleep-out logo and t-shirts, and other current and former homeless youth donated their time and talents. A Wheeling rock band called Two in Harmony, whose lead singer was homeless as a youth, played. “It was very important for him to come back and show his support,” Jackson says.

*photos from Youth Service System's Facebook Page

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