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Cardboard City brings awareness to homeless families

Cardboard City brings awareness to homeless families

Missions and Outreach

Think of it as a consciousness-raising sleepover.

Every November, people spend the night on cardboard boxes on the front lawn of CrossRoad United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.

This year's Cardboard City event, held at CrossRoad UMC in Jacksonville, was expected to draw as many as 200 people. The November event raised money and awareness for homeless families.

The event is called Cardboard City, and it’s a way to empathize with homeless families and to raise money for Family Promise of Jacksonville, which describes itself as an interfaith hospitality network.

Six years ago, CrossRoad church member and Executive Director of Family Promise Mark Landschoot asked Lance Sellon, director of Go Ministries at the church, if they would be interested in hosting Cardboard City.

“When he explained it to me, it was an immediate, ‘Yes,’” Sellon said. “It really helps people identify and empathize with what a homeless family might have to do deal with.”

Participants are asked to raise $100 for Family Promise. They can bring a box, a tent or sleep in their car. Sellon said between 120 and 200 people turn out for the event.

“In November, it’s just chilly enough to remind everyone about how uncomfortable it is living outdoors,” Sellon said. “One year, it was the coldest November night on record. We were proud that we did it but kind of miserable.”

It’s also a fun event, Sellon said. Alhambra Theatre and Dining provides food—chili and cornbread. They show a movie like “The Pursuit of Happyness,” starring Will Smith and his real-life son portraying a homeless father and son.

This year, the event was held Nov. 17. Participants got to try their luck in the Social Services Maze. Each player was given an identity, and they had to try to sign-up for services at mock social service agencies, frequently being turned away for being ineligible or lacking documents.

Family Promise is a national organization with affiliates in 43 states. Sellon said they are the only homeless organization in the area that keeps families together. Their goal is to get homeless families off the street in three to six months with the help of church partners.

In Jacksonville, the families rotate among 17 churches, and seven of them Methodist.
Each church hosts three families for a week at a time, providing dinner, friendship and a place to sleep.

At CrossRoad, their assigned family arrives Sunday afternoon. “We transform some of our meeting spaces into bedrooms for the families. We provide them dinner and supplies,” Sellon said. “We hang out with them, hear their stories, play with the kids.”

During the week, Family Promise takes the children to day care or school and the adults to social service agencies, job fairs and job interviews. Some of the families have lost documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards, which are necessary for government assistance. Family Promise helps them get new documents.

“We only see a family once,” Sellon said. “By the time the church’s next week rolls around, the family has found stable work and housing. It’s really exciting to see what happens.”

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.