Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Putting Yourself in Another's Shoes

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Putting Yourself in Another's Shoes

Article excerpt

ON a cold Friday night in mid-October, hundreds of middle-class residents of Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., gave up the comforts of home for an unusual social experiment. As participants in the second annual Great Plains Winter Sleep-out, they braved temperatures that dipped as low as 26 degrees to experience firsthand the plight of homeless people.

If they wanted to eat, they waited in line at a makeshift soup kitchen. When it was time to sleep, they converted sidewalks and benches into beds. Blankets and plastic garbage bags doubled as mattresses, and cardboard boxes became their only flimsy protection against the wind.

Their deprivation served a useful purpose: collecting money for area shelters. Last year's sleep-out raised $45,000 in donations. At a time when the homeless have all but disappeared from headlines, the event also offered reassuring evidence that at least one state hasn't forgotten the urgent needs of those who have no place to call their own.

As participants readily acknowledged, their single night on the streets could hardly simulate true homelessness. They were warmly dressed. They also knew they would soon return to a world filled with taken-for-granted comforts - soft beds, hot baths, full refrigerators. Yet even if some members of the group regarded the experience as little more than grist for dinner-party conversations, others undoubtedly gained new insight into lives that are worlds apart from their own.

The adult game of "Let's pretend" took another form last winter near Boston. Just before a state-of-the-art jail opened, the sheriff issued an unusual invitation. For $25, curious suburbanites could spend a night behind bars as part of a "Jail & Bail" charity fund-raiser. Although the event was more social than sociological, seriousness prevailed as mock prisoners fell asleep on their stainless-steel beds thinking, "This is what it's like to be in jail...."

Still, even empathy has its limits. At a time when the gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots continues to widen, the question on many voters' lips in this election year is: How can rich people isolated behind the palisades of power know what it's like to be poor, hungry, or unemployed? …

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