Rutgers–Camden Student Organizes Sleepout for Homelessness

By Tom McLaughlin

In spring 2017, Nitan Shanas had his first up-close-and-personal experience with homelessness when the then-high school senior and his friends took a trip to Washington, D.C. As he recalls, they had just finished eating and he had some leftover food. Rather than throw it out, he decided to give it to a homeless man, who struck up a conversation. The interaction would leave a lasting impression.

Shanas hopes that participants will gain a firsthand, albeit limited, experience of the daily struggles faced by people experiencing homelessness.

“I realized that when I am helping people, I can learn a lot from them as well, while striving to brighten up their day,” says the Rutgers University–Camden Civic Scholar.

Now a junior double major in urban studies and psychology, Shanas has teamed with Joseph’s House of Camden to organize a “Sleepout for Homelessness.” This event for faculty, staff, and students will take place on the Rutgers–Camden campus from 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, to 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 15. Donations to the event are currently being accepted.

It is the Rutgers–Camden student’s hope that participants will gain a firsthand, albeit limited, experience of the daily struggles faced by people experiencing homelessness.

“I hope that the sleepout will be an unforgettable activity – one that might push participants out of their comfort zones,” says Shanas, “and one that will inspire and cause participants to rethink the things we take for granted on a daily basis.”

More than 30 Rutgers students, faculty, and staff – and counting – will participate in the event, which will begin with an informative three-hour program indoors that covers public policy on homelessness, and some of the myths and misconceptions about housing insecurity.

Participants will then sleep outside in the Campus Center Quad, followed by a morning reflection encouraging participants to share their thoughts on the experience and discussing ways that they can continue to solve this important issue in the future.

“Most importantly, we want participants to educate themselves,” says Shanas, who notes the event is co-sponsored by the Rutgers–Camden Honors College and College Democrats.

For those who know the Civic Scholar, organizing the sleepout is just the latest example of a passion and concern for helping others that has been present since childhood.

The Rutgers–Camden undergraduate views his role as a Civic Scholar as nothing short of “a privilege.”

A native of Gan Yavne, Israel, Shanas moved with his family to the United States in 2009 in the pursuit of better educational opportunities. Growing up in Cherry Hill, he recalls, one of the first projects that really opened his eyes to the challenges in American society was an after-school program assisting children with special needs and those facing socioeconomic challenges. He helped kids with their homework as a school-based mentor and served as co-president of the program throughout his years at Cherry Hill High School East.

“This was where I first experienced the gratification of helping others in need,” he says.

Shanas also became active in the Boy Scouts, where he enjoyed the annual experience of collecting items for the Cherry Hill Food Pantry. Moreover, he helped fellow scouts on various Eagle Scout projects benefitting the community. For his own Eagle Scout project, he created a subsection of an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant trail in a local urban forest.

Arriving at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2017, Shanas took his commitment to helping others to a new level as a Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar – a role that he views as nothing short of “a privilege.”

“It is extremely rewarding to be part of a program focused on benefitting the city of Camden, working alongside other students who are just as passionate about social issues as I am,” he says.

Among his most memorable experiences thus far, Shanas volunteered with New Visions, a day shelter for homeless adults in Camden. When New Visions suddenly closed over a year ago, he immediately began working at Joseph’s House of Camden, an overnight homeless shelter serving around 85 homeless adults every night. He initially worked as a night/morning greeter and soon got the opportunity to work as a service navigator, helping guests secure a host of social services.

Shanas assists a guest while working for New Visions in Camden.

Shanas has also been active in nationwide Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week efforts, raising awareness about homelessness and food insecurity, while raising funds and providing service opportunities at area organizations addressing these issues. As a research assistant, he also studied homelessness and financially insecure children and their ability to succeed academically.

The Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar spoke on the topic of civic professionalism – alongside Michael D’Italia, program coordinator for engaged civic learning at Rutgers–Camden – at the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development last year. He will moderate a career panel at the nonprofit’s upcoming conference.

This past summer, Shanas was also part of a local grant review panel for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants providing up to $100,000 in funding for local agencies that deal with food insecurity.

“All of these experiences were made possible through the Civic Scholars program and the supportive staff from the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers–Camden,” says Shanas. “I am beyond lucky for these opportunities.”

Upon graduating from Rutgers–Camden in 2021, Shanas plans to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, with the goal of attaining a leadership position in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or other related agencies.

“This would enable me to have the authority and privilege,” he says, “to make impactful decisions that will serve to improve the lives of those in need.”

Posted in: Community Outreach

Comments are closed.