TYLER - Hundreds of East Texans volunteered to experience what it's like to be homeless at the eighth annual "One Night Without a Home". Volunteers gathered at the Salvation Army in Tyler and marched to Fun Forest Park where they would stay until 7:00 a.m. Saturday.
The purpose of the event is to bring awareness to homelessness in Smith County.
Daniel Seguin heard about the opportunity through his siblings who volunteered last year for college credit at Tyler Junior College. He said this opportunity would give him the perspective to understand what it is like to be homeless - an opportunity he said he would not otherwise have.
"I wanted to see what it was like," Seguin said. "I don't understand how some people say we have privilege or what other people experience by going out into the world and being discriminated against based on race or gender, and also how people are discriminated against based on their income level."
He said he packed an extra blanket, sleeping bag and long johns. His biggest worry is the cold front moving through East Texas, but he said if the homeless are surviving, he should be able to get through it.
East Texas Human Needs Network (ETHNN) Network Weaver Christina Fulsom said she is glad the cold front moved in when it did.
"When you're out there at night with your friends, because university students tend to come together, it almost feels like a campout," she said. "I'm glad that they will be uncomfortable, because the truth is, people that experience homelessness don't have a choice."
This is the first year the event has been on a Friday night, and Fulsom said it took some convincing.
"I used to do it on a Thursday night and people would always say, 'Oh, I have to go to school tomorrow,' or, 'I have to go to work tomorrow.' Well, so do the people that experience homelessness," she said.
There were 180 volunteers, up from 150 the year before. The majority of those were college students, but some were in high school.
Fulsom said having a young group is a great sign, showing the community is curious about homelessness.
According to the 2015 Smith County Homelessness Assessment Report, 233 people were found homeless on January 22, 2015. The number was identical in 2016.
"On the surface, it seemed like great news, except the percentage of children homeless increased from 18 percent to 24 percent - a tremendous increase," Fulsom said.
In addition, there was a six percent increase in people living in shelters, three percent increase in people living on the streets and a two percent increase in homelessness overall in Smith County.