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Teens learn about homelessness

Teenagers from across the Northeast region learned first hand what it's like to be homeless.

St. John's United Church of Christ, Fullerton, hosted a sleep out for homelessness event Sept. 20 to raise awareness and money to help combat homelessness in the Lehigh Valley.

Roughly 100 teens from the Penn Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ assembled before the sleep out to learn the causes and effects of teen homelessness.

Nancy Azar, associate conference minister for PNEC, said the event is held yearly to bring the issue of homelessness to area teens and churches.

"We have come to recognize the extent of homelessness, not just youth, but all over," she said. "It's a heart issue."

Michelle Funk, director of Christian education at St. John's UCC, helped put the event together this year.

"We want to make sure the kids are going to have a very good spiritual experience and learn about homelessness and how to do something about it," she said.

Shane Burroughs, street outreach coordinator for Valley Youth House, gave a brief overview of the Synergy Project. Its purpose is to build relationships with teens on the street, provide the basic necessities and direct the teens to the appropriate social service agencies.

Burroughs told the audience most teens desire a normal life.

"Homeless youth are very motivated to get out of the homeless situation," he said. "They're never truly comfortable."

Causes of homelessness, Burroughs said, include drug use, mental health issues, history of abuse, refusing to follow rules and sexual orientation and gender identification.

The Synergy Project provides transportation for the homeless teens to and from appointments, locating shelter and jobs, referrals, peer support and homeless prevention services to local school districts.

According to Burroughs, in 2013 there were between 1.6 and 2.6 million teens homeless in America. The actual number is closer to 3 million, he said.

"It's [teen homelessness] a lot more common and normal than a lot of us think," Burroughs said. "Homeless youth do not become homeless for no reason."

After Burroughs' presentation, the teens headed outside to construct their makeshift cardboard boxes. The teens then spent the evening sleeping in the cardboard boxes in a field adjacent to St. John's.

While the event was marked by a serious tone, the teens enjoyed themselves.

"I'm really glad I did it because I'm having a lot of fun," said Rachel Dennis of Coplay.

Last year the event raised $4,000. St. John's hopes to exceed that amount.

"I just want to thank you guys from the bottom of my heart for helping homeless youth in this area," Burroughs said.