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Eyewitness: writer goes homeless at "Let's Shack Up"

Nicholas Knoske

Issue date: 10/2/09 Section: News
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 Students rush to get their hands on a new delivery of cardboard at last weekend's Let's Shack Up.
Media Credit: Denton Zhou
Students rush to get their hands on a new delivery of cardboard at last weekend's Let's Shack Up.
[Click to enlarge]
Media Credit: Denton Zhou
[Click to enlarge]
Several dozen representatives of Juniper Residential College
Media Credit: Denton Zhou
Several dozen representatives of Juniper Residential College "shacking up" in front of Kelvin Smith Library last Friday night. CWRU Habitat for Humanity hosted their annual "Let's Shack Up" event to raise money to prevent homelessness in Cleveland. Habitat had their largest turnout ever - over 125 people participated.
[Click to enlarge]
S'mores, hot chocolate, a trash can fire, local security helping themselves to 'mallows as they mingle with the matriculated, and of course that great gleaming library right over there. At least one of these has to evince some kind of homelessness.

This was the scene last Friday at the KSL Oval when CWRU's Habitat for Humanity held its yearly "Let's Shack Up" event, participants of which are encouraged to build cardboard palaces (or hovels) with donated Home Depot boxes and then sleep in them for the night. There were also prizes (i.e., bragging rights) awarded to the best structures of three categories: Residential College, Greek Life, and Best of the Rest.

The cost for participants ranged from $4 a person to $5; discounts were given to large groups. All proceeds are donated to Cleveland organizations that seek to improve the quality of housing and the homeless condition within the city.

Despite this, sophomore Dennis Matthews wondered if the event didn't seem a little burlesque. "Personally," he said, "I just don't feel like this is an adequate experience in the demonstration of homelessness. However, the statement that it makes is pure in concept, and therefore it makes for a good event."

It did look fun. But while my flagrant guilt-tripping wasn't enough to get a couple friends involved ("Why would I pay to sleep outside and suffer?"), there was no shortage of attendants. The event actually saw the highest turnout in its history. According to Mary Beth Ray, vice president of the Habitat, there were approximately 125 paid registrants for the occasion.

Most of them arrived carrying pillows or sleeping bags, while others swaddled themselves in blankets and minced about the oval. Still others wore matching burgundy T-shirts and chanted. "Juni, Juni, Juni, what? Juni, Juni, Juni, purrr!" To passersby this probably looked like some sort of cultic exhibition, but it was just the freshmen from Juniper. Otherwise the atmosphere was that of a giant slumber party, like the kind you built sprawling forts of bed sheets for when you were still a child.

However, the forts this time were made of cardboard boxes, which in the hands of Case students can make for some pretty impressive structures. There were numerous designs: traditional house-like living quarters, low-slung cardboard igloos, castles, coliseums, and even a shark head.

Nora Scullin, sophomore, called her group's work a "hobo veranda, or a Parthenon, or a sun porch, or whatever you want it to be in your heart."

The Juniper residents, in their masses, managed to build a few structures. There was a towering coliseum or pantheon (tough to decide, and I received conflicting reports). There was a metropolis where the Shermanites, as they called themselves, sat upon the ground behind procumbent walls, posing for pictures-these, I think, were the plebs. And there was Sherman Heights, whose facade bore ironic signage like "No Hobo."

And so everyone had a vision, even if they didn't have the cardboard to make it work.

There was hushed talk of cardboard-thievery, in fact, but it may just have been jealous hearsay; some builders were competitive.

"It's a competition to me," said junior Jack Cheng of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He and Phi Psi brother Kogulan Nadesakumaran spent hours crafting a near-perfect dome roof that drew approving nods from judges. "I don't like losing. Look at them," he said, indicating the Juniper group. "Them and their twenty people."

Actually, there were about 45 Juniper representatives in total. Naturally, they consumed the most cardboard and the most duct tape.

In any event, the posse known as Alpha Chi Omega was left box-less, which meant that as nearby students constructed regal castles and pantheons, these sisters were probably the most attuned to what a homeless person might feel like.

'We're going to do an invisible box," Amanda Martin explained. She's a junior and a sister of Alpha Chi Omega. "It's an environmentalist box and we'll all be mimes in it." Then she asked me to take a picture of her and the AXO sisters inside their stealthy structure. But by now, they were lying in a pile on the grass and laughing uncontrollably, having apparently forgotten that the box they were inside of was in fact invisible, and that mimes do not laugh.

Salvation arrived when a van pulled into the oval off Euclid. "Cardboard!" someone shrieked. There was restrained excitement as everyone approached the van, and for the only time that night all the participants might actually have resembled homeless people as they crowded around the vehicle for handouts- not of government cheese or ratty blankets, but of Home Depot boxes.

The boxes disappeared within a minute. Few realized how difficult it was for the organization to procure that cardboard, though.

Cody Allen, president of Habitat for Humanity, provided the details. "Home Depot donated a lot-$100 worth," he said. "We bought an additional $155 of boxes from them. And the rest came from Case Services."

All of it was used, too. Some teams seemed to devour the precious material. Lest any brave competitors consider usurpation, the Juniper coliseum was even guarded-by freshman Shermanite Erik Nigro, whose Greek name for the night was McLovin'. He wore a Cleveland Indians blanket-cape and a long, narrow box for a helmet. I approached him cautiously for an interview, noting his cardboard javelin. I asked why his building was better than all of the others.

"Because I built it," said McLovin'.

"Is there a password?"

"There is a password."

"Can you tell me the password?" I asked.

"I cannot tell you."

A shame, certainly, but McLovin' can always be trusted to do his job well.

And he was rewarded, because after four hours of fevered building the results of the competition were announced and the winner of the Residential College category for best structure was Juniper and the Sherman house.

The best structure produced by the Greek life went to Sigma Nu's traditional house-like creation, on the roof of which appeared to be cardboard solar panels that may or may not have been a fantastic preventative of electrical fires. There were also jokes emblazoned on the exterior of the house: "No Fire allowed!" and "Fire sale!" Sadly, like its bigger counterpart, this house could not escape water damage--this time caused by Saturday morning's rainfall.

And the Best of the Rest category was taken by none other than "Awesome Group," who not only created a large and impressive cardboard castle but also decorated its parapets with pictorial penguins, which was, indeed, amazing.

Awesome Group even stayed the night, which I'd planned on doing too until the Phi Psi igloo, my planned residence, was quite literally lifted off the ground by a 2:00 a.m. gust of wind and dropped elsewhere in shambles. Other structures, the victorious Juniper coliseum included, were razed entirely.

As I departed from the wreckage, I wondered how some of the bigger groups would fit into their newly downsized structures. But then I realized that almost certainly people would practically have to sleep in piles, and that whatever cold the night could have set upon them would be neutralized by a pretty gross amount of natural, cardboard-insulated body heat.  Finally, a little bit of "homeless" reality.

The next morning those who remained woke for free bagels and clean-up duty (much to everyone's dismay, the tape had to be separated from the cardboard for recycling), and for the rest of the weekend the detritus of the night sat in six trash cans outside the library doors-water bottles, Styrofoam, cans of Jolt and Starbucks cups, the odd pizza box, scraps of paper and unsigned waivers, wooden dowel rods coated in melted and re-ossified marshmallow, tiny bits of cardboard and, of course, truly sinful amounts of duct tape.
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