Local teens ‘camp in’ to experience homelessness for a night

Meadowdale High School student Uloma Okoro waits to see if she qualifies for services, part of an activity aimed at teaching students the challenges facing homeless families.

Meadowdale High School student Uloma Okoro waits to see if she qualifies for services, part of an activity aimed at teaching students the challenges facing homeless families.

Story and photos by Marika Price
UW News Lab

For many local teenagers, homelessness is a reality worth understanding.

Last Friday, about 30 students from various high schools across Snohomish County participated in a “camp in” at the Lynnwood-based Volunteer Activity Center to gain perspective about the struggles of poverty. The awareness event was coordinated by faith-based charity organization Volunteers of America Western Washington (VOAWW).

After eating in a soup kitchen-like setting, the teens listened to speakers who have encountered homelessness. They played a few games to spark conversation and slept overnight in sleeping bags.

“It’s definitely not how I normally spend Friday nights,” said Meadowdale High School student Uloma Okoro, 18. “But I wanted to take time to experience these challenges and better see how to help.”

Everett High School student Anna Simonelli, 17, braids the hair of homeless 9-year-old Avvy during break time.

Everett High School student Anna Simonelli, 17, braids the hair of homeless 9-year-old Avvy during break time.

Sitting cross-legged with her hands clasped, a 9-year-old girl who goes by the nickname “Avvy” opened up about living in a shelter. Previously she “couch surfed,” a term used to describe frequent movement between temporary shelters. Avvy also slept in a car with her parents and older brother. (Note: A map of Snohomish County locations providing services for those who are homeless can be found at the end of this story.)

As Avvy explained her family’s struggle, sitting beside Faith Simonelli, a housing director at VOAWW who has worked with the family, the students were speechless.

“I started to tear up. No one should have to go through that and she’s just so innocent,” Okoro said.

Anna Gompert, a 15-year-old Meadowdale High student, added, “It made me realize that this can happen to anyone. Life can go downhill so fast.”

Originally, Avvy’s entire family was scheduled to appear. But her brother decided to remain anonymous because no one at his high school knows about his living situation.

Simonelli explained that while nearly 3,000 teenagers and children are homeless in the Snohomish and Island counties, many suffer silently.

Amberly Khamsaly, 17, a student at Sultan High School, said she appreciated Avvy’s openness. “I’m glad she was willing to present herself in front of us because we should be aware that this is happening.”

Other speakers included a local firefighter, Brent Weir, and Chris Green, a counselor who works with chronically homeless people. Both emphasized the importance of long-term assistance and explained the role mental health and substance abuse plays in this prevalent issue.

Following the presentations, the students participated in a scavenger hunt for different “services.” Booths were set up to represent services such as transportation, child care and permanent housing. As the students were assigned characters to impersonate, volunteer staff members assessed whether or not they were qualified to receive help.

By the end of the game, the teens realized that getting help is not always easy. Most students thought employment would be fairly accessible, but later reported it was one of the biggest challenges.

“Often preconceived notions about homelessness are off-base,” said Simonelli. “The whole ‘get a job’ mentality is just not that simple.”

When asked what was the most frustrating part of the activity, students were in near-unanimous agreement: re-filling out paperwork and not having an ID.

After setting up their sleeping bags, staff and students bond while playing games together at the Volunteer Activity Center.

After setting up their sleeping bags, staff and students bond while playing games together at the Volunteer Activity Center.

Many of the participants belong to the VOAWW Youth Action Team, a group of high school students devoted to serving the community. During the evening’s activities, students started to connect prior experiences with homelessness and discussed ways to get more involved.

The awareness event was designed to build empathy for those less fortunate and expose future leaders to problems they can help change.

Leann Geiger, director of food bank services with VOAWW, said that after brainstorming ideas, the phrase “homeless kids go hungry too” stuck in her mind. She explained that students are usually unaware that their peers are facing these challenges.

According to Geiger, this was an opportunity to openly talk about these situations in a comfortable environment and get a glimpse into an unfamiliar life.

The event also doubled as a fundraiser, as each student was encouraged to raise money to support services to fight hunger and homelessness. An estimated $3,000 was raised and will benefit Volunteers of America Western Washington. There was also a raffle for an iPad and participants earned community service hours. However, students seemed more interested in the experience than any prizes.

“This is just something I am passionate about and I already feel more appreciative of my own life,” said 17-year-old Meadowdale High School student Amorelle Valdez.

View Homeless Services in Snohomish County in a larger map

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