By Jason Jenkins
Sun Sailor Newspapers
Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners has launched its 21st annual Sleep Out campaign, which aims to collect $2.18 million by the year’s end to fight suburban poverty and homelessness.
Since the Sleep Out began two decades ago, the Plymouth-based nonprofit has raised more than $23 million. The funds raised, IOCP officials said, has prevented families from experiencing homelessness 27,983 times in its service area, which includes Hamel, Long Lake, Medicine Lake, Medina, Minnetonka Beach, Orono, Plymouth and Wayzata.
During the campaign, kids, families, school groups, neighborhoods and church organizations brave cold weather and sleep outside to raise money and awareness for the campaign.
The charitable event has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1996. That year, Bob Fisher, a Wayzata shoe repairman, unknowingly launched the community campaign when he decided to collect donations to sleep in a tent on winter nights in order to provide a Thanksgiving meal for struggling families. In two weeks, Fisher had raised $10,000 and the Sleep Out was born.
The annual year-end campaign has since grown to include annual support from businesses, faith communities, schools, civic groups and individual donors working toward raising awareness and funds to address suburban poverty. According to the Metropolitan Council, suburban and rural poverty in the seven-county metro area rose by 92 percent from 2000-2013. This year’s goal of $2.18 million will help address the housing, employment, childcare, food and transportation needs of 2,184 families.
“The Sleep Out is so important because it draws attention to the needs of struggling families in our community, which is really way more than so many of us understand it to be,” said Rima Torgerson, a Wayzata resident who recently joined IOCP’s board of directors as a community volunteer leader.
The nonprofit kicked off the fundraising effort Nov. 12 with the Ignite the Night event at IOCP’s headquarters in Plymouth. At the event, community members gathered in a circle around 500 luminaries that formed the shape of IOCP’s logo. From there, youth from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities were invited inside for a workshop on unconscious bias. The workshop focused on educating youth on recognizing ways they might unconsciously judge others and act in biased ways based on religious beliefs and economic status.
Susan Geller, IOCP associate director of operational and organizational advancement, said she encouraged her faith community, Shir Tikvah synagogue in Minneapolis, to get involved in this year’s interfaith Sleep Out efforts. Over the past year, Geller said, the synagogue’s youth had met with youth from Plymouth’s Northwest Islamic Community Center.
“The synagogue came to the mosque and then the mosque came to the synagogue as a response to Islamophobia and all the hatred that was in the air last year and which of course continues. … This is an opportunity for us to deepen relationships and connections,” Geller said.
With both youth groups sharing an interest in raising local awareness of poverty and homelessness, they decided to team up and organize a joint Sleep Out gathering.
Saima Ahmer, a member of Northwest Islamic Community Center, said the joint effort between the two faith communities was a great chance to demonstrate unity and tolerance.
“And along with that opportunity comes an awareness of homelessness and poverty,” she said.
Ahmer was one of the adult leaders who accompanied around a dozen youth from the Jewish and Muslim faith communities as they camped outside at the Plymouth mosque.
“We’re cousins and we have a shared future and we have shared values,” said Shir Tikvah Rabbi Michael Adam Latz.
“We’re decent people who care about those who are suffering, and both of our religious texts and traditions demand that we stand up for those who are suffering and reach out and show America what happens when we come together and respect one another and work for justice and peace and equality.”
The sense of unity was also felt by St. Louis Park student and Shir Tikvah member Avia Kaner-Roth.
“It’s really important that it’s interfaith because I think that there’s a lot of confusion about whether or not people can work together and I think this proves that,” Avia said. “We’re including everyone. It’s not a single faith thing to care about homeless people. Everyone should care about everyone.”
Affaan Ahmer, a student at Wayzata Central Middle School and member of the Northwest Islamic Community Center, said he decided to participate in the Sleep Out to help spread awareness for those who are struggling to provide for their families.
“And I think this growing awareness really shows, because so many people are a part of this,” Affaan said.
For more information about the Sleep Out and how to get involved, visit iocp.org/sleepout.