Homeless for 30 Days: Braving the Cold for a Cause

Pastor Ryan Riddell is living in his van this month to help the homeless.

January 14, 2011, 2:48 PM

Jan. 15, 2011— -- Last year Ryan Riddell was living in his 2,700-square foot home in Miamisburg, Ohio. But ever since January 1 he's been living in a cargo van parked on the streets of downtown Dayton.

He has chosen to be homeless this month to raise awareness about homelessness in America.Armed with a portable heater and heavy clothing, 43-year-old Riddell is braving a snowy Ohio winter for 30 days. Meteorologists expect temperatures to dip into the teens this week, with snow showers coming on Monday and Tuesday."I never really realized how bad the situation was," Riddell said. "It's eye-opening to see what people who live like this have to go through."Riddell had been working as a real estate agent and a pastor of the Shelter Community Church of the Nazarene in Dayton. He made enough money for his wife of nine years to be a stay-at-home mom to their three young sons. And he lived with a roof over his head, never worrying about his next meal."At the end of the month I'll go back to my home and my family and my life. But these people out here, well, they'll stay here until they get a break," he said.In the meantime, Riddell is trying his best to simulate homelessness, although he admits his new makeshift home is relatively comfortable."My conditions are nothing compared to the ones of these people," he said.He sleeps on a cot in the back of his van, a beat-up vehicle outfitted with a propane heater, a supply of blankets and a carbon monoxide detector. He spends his days walking the city, meeting individuals and families who call the streets home.When the weather gets too cold, he'll take temporary refuge in any location possible -- a laundromat, a McDonald's or anywhere else that won't kick him out. He takes two showers a week at a local church, and uses the restroom in public libraries, fast food restaurants and sometimes a small container in his van.For food, he keeps a supply of canned soup, which he heats up in a convenience store microwave in his van. He also accepts meals from people interested in his cause, as well as invitations to dine at missions and shelters in the city.

Homeless for 30 Days

Still, he hasn't completely separated himself from his normal life. His wife, Beth, comes into the city twice a week to visit with their three sons:Titus, Travis and Tine, ages 3 through 6."I'm not sure if the boys really understand what he's doing," Beth said. "They know that Daddy's helping people, but when you're that young it's hard to understand why he's suddenly not home to tuck you in at night."Riddell misses his family, too."That's been the hardest part," Riddell said. "Not seeing my family every day."While Beth and her children miss Riddell, she still considers her family fortunate."I have no room to complain," she said. "My sister-in-law is a military wife. At least I know where my husband is and exactly when he's coming home."Riddell said that despite the difficulties, this is something he must do. He believes homelessness is an issue his Christian faith has called him to tackle."If you look at the scripture, it's there," he said. "In church, we talk about all of this hurting and loss in the world, but what are we really doing about it?"He's chronicling his journey on his blog, 30dayshomeless.wordpress.com. Riddell hopes that at least 1,000 of his followers will donate as much as they can afford to The New Family Tree ministry, a group that is building homes for children "aged out" of foster care who would otherwise become homeless.And with a growing homeless population, he believes the time for action is now.A new report released this week by the National Alliance to End Homelessness says homelessness in the U.S. increased three percent between 2008 and 2009.Nan Roman, the group's president, said the issue of homelessness becomes especially pressing when the weather turns chilly."In a country like America, people are freezing to death on the streets? It's ridiculous," she said. "It shouldn't have to happen, not here."

'We've Got to Look Out for Our Neighbors'

According to Roman, there are two solutions. In the short term, emergency shelters are vital to get people in from the cold to save their lives. In the long term, lawmakers must work to lower housing costs so no one has to live without a home in winter or any other season, she said."This is a huge issue, and there's no one way to tackle it," Roman said. "But somehow we've got to work together to make sure that everyone has a place they can call home. We've got to look out for our neighbors."Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said cold weather is especially dangerous for homeless communities in normally moderate climates. Cities in the South and other locations with warmer weather may not know how to help those in need when cold weather strikes, he said."It's not as big of an issue in communities that are expecting cold winters," Donovan said. "They know it's going to be cold every year, and they know what to do when it does."Donovan said he saw some shelters in the Washington, D.C. area become disorderly last year when record-breaking chills hit the city.However, some shelters in warmer locations do have concrete plans in place when temperatures drop.The Atlanta Mission, a shelter based in Atlanta, has operated smoothly despite the city's unusual snowy weather.Jim Reese, president and CEO, said that when the temperature drops below 35 degrees, the mission's downtown men's shelter goes into an "overflow setting." Volunteers move tables in the shelter's cafeteria to make way for 100 cots, which are normally folded and kept in storage. With these extra beds, the shelter operates at about 125 percent capacity"We have a set action plan for cold weather, and if we follow that, we tend to stay pretty organized," Reese said.He also credits volunteer efforts for the success of the cold weather plan. The shelter's volunteers have pitched in extra time and effort during the past week because "they know how important getting everyone inside is," he said."We set up the cafeteria with cots and blankets in 15 minutes flat one day, just because everyone was so focused on the goal of getting people in from the cold," Reese said.

Coping In Cold Weather

Back in Dayton, Riddell continues to battle the snow and frost. The city has already gotten five inches of snow this month and they're expecting more.Riddell met one man who sleeps outside every night, despite the evening's temperatures. When Riddell asked him what he does when it snows, the man said, "he shovels a little bit."Riddell said some of the homeless people he's met know how to cope with the cold."It's still no excuse," he added. "No one should have to live out on the streets, no matter how used to the cold they are."Riddell believes his journey will encourage others to help those in need."Judging from the responses I've gotten online, this project has already been successful," he said.On Sunday Jan. 2, Riddell's blog had 980 followers. Five days later, more than 2,000 people were tracking his journey online. Since he started the project, about 20,000 people have visited his website.Riddell is "surprised and overwhelmed" with how much support and attention he's gotten online -- especially when those people have volunteered to help his cause.One day Riddell met Joshua and Elizabeth, a young homeless couple sleeping on top of a trestle, about 500 yards from a Marriott hotel in the city. Two days later he learned the structure the two called home was to be torn down.Riddell posted a Facebook status asking his followers if they could help the couple. Within 30 minutes, he received a text from a woman willing to donate money to put the two in a hotel for the night."It's just crazy," he said. "It's amazing that I'm reaching so many people, and it's amazing that they are so willing to help."ABCNews.com contributor Meg Wagner is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau at the University of Florida.

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