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Habitat volunteers.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers Tracy Gillis and Kyle Skar.

Habitat for Humanity chapter grows

Understanding homelessness is part of the picture

Published on October 28, 2005

Even before Hurricane Wilma blasted through Florida, the Twin Cities chapter of Habitat for Humanity had a record number of volunteers for its winter break work week.

"When we put up the sign-up sheets, people were reaching over each others' backs to scribble their names on the list," says sophomore Sally Holzapfel, in charge of planning the trips along with sophomore Claire Mance. There were so many people interested in the house-building trips to Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi that the U chapter had to ask Habitat for Humanity International for help in accommodating all the students.

"I think the response came from a combination of better organization and publicity and a lot of interest from students," says Catherine Osborne, a senior in the School of Nursing, who shares the Habitat presidency with Saundra Hartman, a senior pharmacy student. "We started the year out strong. We received money from student fees, so we wanted to demonstrate to the U that we were responsible. And a lot of students approached us, knowing what Habitat does, and wanted to lend a hand. It makes me so happy that we could accommodate everyone who was interested. We even had to add an extra trip to Florida."

"The speaker also helped us understand that homeless people aren't just those we see by the side of the highway. They could be our classmates."

On Thursday night, Habitat held its annual "Shantytown" event, a nightlong effort to help students understand a little bit of what it's like to be homeless. Following a model of education and experience used at other colleges around the country, Krystal Klein from Housing Minnesota, a nonprofit that addresses affordable housing from the policy side, talked to the students about what they can do to encourage the U to help with homelessness. About 10 students then spent the night in cardboard boxes at the east end of the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Sleeping outdoors on even a relatively mild autumn night made an impression on Lindsey Ruth, a Carlson School senior.

"We went to sleep at 2:30 a.m. and I wore a coat and I had a blanket, I was sheltered by a box, and was out of the wind," says Ruth. "Even so, I woke up at 4 a.m.-- freezing. I could go home to my warm bed at 6 a.m., but homeless people have no bed to go to and often have to get up and go to work after a cold night. The speaker also helped us understand that homeless people aren't just those we see by the side of the highway. They could be our classmates."

Volunteers collected nonperishable food for Second Harvest and will collect more on Halloween. The event also included a clothing drive with clothes to go to either a local shelter or to hurricane victims.

Each school year, the Habitat chapter builds one house in the Twin Cities. They raise funds through pizza sales, an annual run called Habitrot, and special events like Habitat's Rockin' Deal, at The Whole in Coffman at 6 p.m., Nov. 16.

Spring break trips will go to places in the United States that will need the most help in March. Habitat was founded in 1989, but "grew by leaps and bounds," according to Osborne, in 2001.

"The key to building this organization is to keep people involved and to continue to give them every opportunity to help," says Osborne.