With the horrendous winter weather still going strong, it’s hard for most people to fathom what it would be like to be homeless, even for one night. C-U at Home asks community members to do just that during its One Winter Night event and fundraiser, which is happening on February 21st this year.

This is the third year that C-U at Home has invited public figures, business and ministry leaders, and other community members to take to the streets of downtown Champaign and spend 12 hours (6 p.m. – 6 a.m.) in individual cardboard boxes.

C-U at Home hopes to raise at least $1000 for each “box-dweller,” the name they use for overnight participants. When I spoke to Melany Jackson, the Executive Director of C-U at Home, she said she hopes that at least 30 people will volunteer to stay overnight on the streets. She expects 100-150 other volunteers will help in other ways by staffing donation tables, holding signs, or running registration or hospitality booths.

And where will all that money go?

According to its website, C-U at Home’s mission is to “engage and mobilize our community to house and support the most vulnerable homeless on their journey of healing and restoration,” and it seeks to fulfill this mission through several faith-based community initiatives. Jackson says their main goal for this year’s fundraising is to open a new daytime drop-in center in the downtown or midtown areas of Champaign.

“The center will be a place where homeless people can get warm in the winter or cool off in the summer,” said Jackson. “Staff members will be there to listen to them and to build relationships. We’ll also have some services that we hope will be helpful: people can get their mail there and have voicemail there. There will be space to read and music to listen to. It will be a place to call their own. And we’ll be there for support as they go through the process of looking for resources.”

Jackson hopes this center will become a reality soon. She said that C-U at Home is in the process of finding a location and will open the center within a couple weeks of securing a space.

Other projects One Winter Night will benefit include a recovery house for people coming out of a rehab program for any kind of addiction (which Jackson said will probably open by the end of March) and another house for a small family that C-U at Home has recently purchased, which will be ready later this spring.

C-U at Home also provides transportation, sometimes in the form of train or bus tickets, to people attending detox programs in other areas of the state or even in Indiana.

Jackson is up-front about the fact that these services are faith-based. The daytime drop-in center that she envisions will provide Christian literature, such as bibles and other types of devotional materials.

“We also hope to start at least one bible study in the center,” Jackson said, “and we hope that recovery groups will use the center for a meeting space. Some recovery groups might be faith-based while others might not be. Another thing we would like to do is start a very simple worship service during the week at the center.”

Jackson says that C-U at Home is not associated with any particular denomination and that the organization’s religious affiliation is “general Christ-followers.” She was also quick to point out that C-U at Home does not use any level of discrimination for its volunteers or the people it serves. “Even if they are of a different faith or no faith, we still want them to be involved,” she said.

Jackson described her motivation for starting C-U at Home as “her walk with Christ,” as well as her involvement with a local canteen run affiliated with the Salvation Army that “takes items to folks on the street.” She also cited a book called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt as a source of inspiration as she embarked on the journey to start C-U at Home.

“Those experiences set my heart intensely on helping the homeless,” Jackson said. “I made the decision to sell my things and move into a shelter for a period of time. I lived in Restoration Urban Ministries for 18 months.

“It was pretty powerful experience. I was side by side by people who had been in a homeless situation for a long period of time. I laughed with them, I cried with them. What I experienced certainly wasn’t equivalent to actually being homeless because I still had a support network while many of them didn’t. But I did experience some of what they went through.”

If you’re thinking that One Winter Night sounds like a far cry from actual homelessness, Jackson would agree with you. “The goal is to raise awareness about homelessness in our community,” she said. “You wake up different after spending the night outside. You wake up appreciating your bed a whole lot more and with more understanding of what people experience who go through that every night. But it’s certainly not the same.

“One Winter Night is at best a loose simulation. The people who participate still have a credit card in their pocket and a place to go in the morning.”