“It gets cold out here. It hurts,” said Richard Etperson, a homeless resident of Madison.
Etperson was one of several homeless citizens who gathered with students and area residents on Library Mall Saturday for an annual event to raise awareness of Madison’s homeless population.
“Box City” is sponsored each year by the nonprofit homeless cooperative newspaper Street Pulse, which is distributed throughout the city by the homeless for a suggested donation of $1 per paper. During the event, participants spend the night on the street with the homeless and hand out copies of Street Pulse.
Etperson said he had worked all his life when he lost his job several years ago. When unemployment benefits ran out, he ended up on the streets.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize who these people are,” he said. “They are not all drug addicts and alcoholics. Some people are really struggling.”
The event featured a range of entertainment including a poetry reading by Adam Bergamont as well as musical performances by the a cappella group Fundamentally Sound and the guitar-playing kazoo master Art Paul Schlosser.
After reading his poems to a crowd of roughly 30 people, Bergamont stopped to acknowledge Street Pulse and the homeless people of Madison.
“The Madison homeless people are residents of this town,” he said. “That’s something to think about.”
One of the organizers, Debbie Gehrke, has been attending the events since they started in 2005. She said she wanted to be involved because she was homeless at one time.
“I lived in a storage locker for several weeks during the middle of winter. I kept warm with tiki torches and all my water was frozen,” she said. “After I got back into society I was very adamant about finding a voice for the homeless.”
While most of the student participants only spent one night sleeping outside in temperatures that dipped into the 20s, other Madison residents live in these conditions every day.
A man who goes by the name of Tank said he sleeps outside and described the homeless problem in Madison as “bigger than people realize.” He said shelters are filled, and even when there is room they are only allowed 60 days a year. Eventually, he said, most of them end up sleeping on the streets or in their cars.
“A lot of people out here don’t realize this could happen to them,” he said. “They could be homeless tomorrow.”
Ben Shapiro of Street Pulse said the event was very successful. He added the event was not only about raising awareness and money, but connecting with the homeless through art, music and trying to better understand the homeless situation.
“I’d wake up sometimes and want to die,” Shapiro said. “It was so cold. But I think of the people who are out here every night, and tonight I’ll be back in my warm bed.”