As far as fundraisers go, Today House’s CEO Sleepout isn’t exactly known for leaving participants with a smile on their face.
This charity event doesn’t boast of high-speed races or family-friendly activities. All the sleepout has to offer is a long, grueling night in a park where you try to sleep with nothing but a small bag of necessities and the clothes on your back.
Chances are you’ll fail.
Katherine Bergen, executive director of Today House, said the point of the sleepout is twofold: One, it’s one of the main fundraisers they rely on for donations to keep the homeless shelter running. Over half of Today House’s annual budget of $100,000 comes from the sleepout.
Two, it gives perspective to a group of business owners, politicians and government workers about what life is like without a roof over your head.
Like it did for some participants who, after a long night of sitting in the pouring rain, told Bergen, "That sucked. I felt like garbage."
And came back again the next year.
One of these participants is Brenda Brown, the program coordinator at Headway who’s participating in the event for the third year.
Although the cold is tough, Brown said, the community aspect of the sleepout makes the experience worth it.
Brown said she always stays up the whole night, talking to other participants about homelessness and brainstorming solutions.
"This is just us trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes," she said. "And we’ll never fully have that perspective."
To make matters worse for the participants, the sleepout happens on a Thursday, which means participants have to try and function at work the next day.
Bergen said this was intentional, because homeless people often have to work after being out all night.
"No matter what the weather is, this is where you’re sleeping," she said. "This is your good night’s rest."
Today House has gotten criticism for what some see as a glorified game of make-believe, and Bergen said she does her best to sure they’re not making light of a serious issue.
"We always want to be very, very sensitive to the fact that we’re not making people feel like we’re making a joke out of it," she said.
But Bergen’s also gotten a lot of positive feedback from the event.
One occasion that sticks out to her was with a man who just happened to be passing by during last year’s sleepout.
When they told him what they were doing, the man was enthusiastic. It turned out he had been a past guest at Today House.
"He said, ‘I love that you guys are out here doing this. More people should be out here,’" said Bergen.
She said fundraisers like the sleepout are necessary to keep the place running, because Today House doesn’t get any government funds.
Bergen said in order for the overnight shelter to get government grants, they have to prove there’s a high population of homeless people in the area.
Although Today House keeps a tally of the number of people who stay at the four-bedroom shelter, Bergen said it doesn’t capture nearly the whole story.
You might not see too many people sleeping on park benches in Steinbach, said Bergen, but a there’s a lot of "invisible homelessness," where people couch-surf, or rely on family for shelter.
"People are surprised that we have homeless people," she said. "Like, I still have conversations with people who think it’s a joke that we have a homeless shelter."
But Bergen said it stays under the radar because small communities tend to take care of their own people. Even among homeless shelters, rural shelters have a different mindset than ones in big cities.
"The cities are more mass-organization: you come to us, or you don’t. In a smaller town, there are people reaching out," Bergen explained.
Now, possibly because Today House is earning more of a name for itself, Bergen said, the shelter is becoming far busier.
As a comparison, in June 2018, one of the slowest months in the year, Today House only had one guest stay at the shelter. In June of this year, there were 43.
The shelter works on a first-come first-serve basis, where people call in to get a room. If the shelter can’t fit a guest, they’ll look for other options like booking a hotel room or contacting a local church.
But Bergen said long-term, they’ll need to expand, if they could get the funds.
To sign up for this year's sleepout on Sept. 12, or donate to one of the participants, contact the shelter at (204) 371-6989.