By PrincessSafiya Byers
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
In November, when temperatures began to drop, Christal and Jarvis West left the comfort of their Milwaukee home to spend a week sleeping outside to raise awareness about youths without housing.
The Wests are community stakeholders with ties to Amani United, a neighborhood group that focuses on community involvement to improve safety and economic opportunities for the community.
Jarvis West is a former president of the group, and Christal is an ambassador for the group.
Christal West said she learned about a national sleep-out campaign last year to raise awareness about youth homelessness by Covenant House, a national organization that provides support for young people facing homelessness and who are survivors of human trafficking.
She noticed none of the participating organizations were in Wisconsin and decided to participate.
“The point of the national sleep out is to bring awareness to youth homelessness, so I thought it was defeating the purpose if no one here participated,” she said.
“So, when I reached out, I asked if there is a way we can do one and if somebody could do it in Milwaukee.”
The couple set up camp across the street from the Dominican Center at 2470 W. Locust St. for several nights and across from Mission of Christ Lutheran Church at 912 E. Center St. for a few more nights.
In addition to raising awareness, the Wests spent the week connecting with people and highlighting Milwaukee organizations that provide services to those struggling with homelessness.
“I’ve met a series of young people who are all experiencing homelessness for a series of reasons,” Christal West said. “Some of them are leaving unsafe home lives. Some of them are struggling with mental illness. And many are struggling out of fear of judgment from family and friends.”
Christal West said she’s learned that there are significantly more young people experiencing homelessness in Milwaukee than many people understand.
An estimated 15,000 young people experience homelessness in Milwaukee each year, according to the Pathfinders, which offers services for youths in crisis.
And a 2023 NNS article revealed many youths who are homeless go uncounted.
On the first night of the sleep out, the couple invited the Amani Youth Council to sit with them and share thoughts on youth homelessness.
“Sometimes young people are living on the streets because parents can be judgmental and it makes you afraid to ask for help,” said Envyanna Scott, a member of the youth council. “Young people need people they can trust and go to when they are struggling.”
Connecting with young people
The Wests wanted to be in a place where they could be vulnerable and talk and connect with young people experiencing homelessness, Christal West said.
“We heard stories from people just passing by who had or were experiencing homelessness and you would never know,” she said. “Gaining that understanding so we could share it was important for us.”
In addition to connecting with people, the couple collected donations of clothing and winter gear that they gave out .
And they taught people skills that would help them survive the cold if they were ever without housing, like how to start a fire, how to cook outside and how to use things like trash cans to stay warm.
Highlighting ‘amazing diamonds’
The couple sought to highlight the Milwaukee groups already serving young people, although they may not all specialize in youth homelessness.
“There are amazing diamonds in this city that are already working to help young people,” Christal West said. “When talking to people, we constantly mentioned the Dominican Center, COA Youth & Family Centers, African American Breastfeeding Network, Running Rebels, Pathfinders, Mission of Christ, and all the different places.”
The Wests are hopeful that the time they spent sleeping outside was able to help someone.
They hope to continue to be involved in future discussions about ending youth homelessness in Milwaukee.
“We wanted to be able to share space with people, and we did that by just talking to them,” Christal West said.