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Night In A Car Raises Money and Awareness

Michael Gregg has two gym memberships. The 68-year-old has run five marathons and wearing a dark henley shirt, jeans, and fashionable black-rimmed glasses, you would never see him as homeless. But, for the past two months, Gregg’s address has been the Billy Shelper shelter at Home Sweet Home Ministries.

Gregg is a military veteran who said he inherited his mother’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A carpenter by trade, Gregg has had many successful years of sobriety but has struggled with alcohol addiction and substance abuse for at least three decades. After being severely beaten and sustaining injuries requiring surgery, Gregg said he is ready to become responsible, accountable, and most importantly sober.

“It’s just been up and down,” he said. “I try to maintain even though I’m an addict. I’ve tried AA and NA but I just don’t get much out of it. I guess I’m my own worst enemy and my best friend.”

But Gregg said he can look in the mirror and be positive about how his life is going, even though he’s homeless.

“I think this time around it’ll be a smooth road from here on out,” he declared. He’s working with his caseworker to transition into getting his own apartment, and he’s also networking to find a job using his skills as a carpenter.

At any one time in Bloomington-Normal, there are nearly 200 people who are considered homeless, including 35 children living in transitional housing, shelters and places not meant for human habitation, according to Home Sweet Home Ministries CEO Mary Ann Pullin.

“Oftentimes people think of the homeless when they see them on street corners begging or they think of those people staying at Home Sweet Home or Salvation Army, but there are plenty of people who are experiencing homelessness who are in places that are invisible that you’re not aware of,” Pullin explained. 

Many are living with friends or relatives crammed into apartments not large enough to accomodate everyone living there. And Pullin said many homeless in McLean County don’t fit a stereotype. They have jobs and are chronically underemployed or they have a long history of work but have fallen on hard times, noting that a current shelter resident is a former employee of a major local insurance company.

Pullin said many people who are homeless have suffered some type of trauma, especially children who have often been abused and neglected and have been enrolled in multiple schools significantly disrupting their education.

Night In A Car Event

This is the fourth year Home Sweet Home Ministries is counting on the Night in a Car event to raise money and awareness. Last year, the $90,000 raised from the event largely contributed to 18,000 nights of shelter for 287 men, women, and children who had nowhere else to stay.

According to Pullin, the fundraising also supported 87,000 meals to shelter residents and community members. By 7:30 p.m. Friday, Pullin announced the event had already surpassed its $50,000 fundraising goal.

Man holding a smart phone inside a classroom.  Smart phone screen is amphlified to the right showing he has met his fundraising goal
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Home Sweet Home Ministries board member and volunteer Career Coach Eric Hoss has been involved all four years of "Night in a Car." He said the experience has made him even more committed to helping anyone whose homeless become self sufficient.

There aren’t many rules for the Night in a Car event in which participants pledge to raise $1,000 and spend a night in their car in the parking lot of Trinity Lutheran Church in southwest Bloomington. Security volunteers make rounds of the parking lot every 30 minutes. Participants are allowed inside the church to use the bathroom and warm-up but some pledge not to leave their vehicles so they can experience what it’s like to have no place to go for relief from the elements.

Despite the harsh conditions, many participants return year after year.

“The most common comment that I hear is, ‘It was miserable but I’m going to do it again,'" Pullin said.

Eric Hoss is one of those returning for a fourth year. The State Farm technology director is also on the Home Sweet Home Ministries board of directors. He’s among this year’s top fundraisers, and he said an initial experience helping shelter residents with interviewing skills gave him such empathy.

“The first night I did it, it was a lot more surprising than I expected,” he shared. “It was dark, It was cold. It was really eye-opening because I realize there are people in Bloomington that that’s their every-night experience and I am lucky I only had to do it once.”

Hoss said after that first-time experience, he vowed to work harder to help the homeless and raise awareness.

He also learned each year to better prepare. The second year he added ear muffs, the third year, a ski mask, and this year he added temporary warmers previously used at Chicago Bears football games.

“Every year I’m getting better at it and yet I realize I haven’t experienced a thousandth of what’s happening out there in the community,” he observed.

He said he also gets frustrated when he hears others criticize the community’s homeless population for not wanting to work.

“These are people who want to work. They want to contribute. They want to be able to be on their own,” he said. “What they often lack are job skills. Many of them have not done a resume. They don’t have the clothes to wear for an interview. Many of them don’t know much about an interview.”

And Hoss said transportation is often a challenge.

Escape Room

Night in a Car participants experienced other challenges of homelessness with a new feature this year. A four-season Escape Room represented a variety of environmental and bureaucratic challenges. Plagued with heavy backpacks, families and individuals meandered through a maze in blistering heat.

In the autumn room, one participant peddled a bicycle to keep lights on while others rummaged through their backpacks to find a document while wearing glasses that simulate what it would be like to try to find something wearing eye glasses with an outdated prescription.

Girl wearing pink eye glasses sits on the floor with an open folder, trying to find a document.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Hannah Braucht, 9, looks through a folder she dug out of an over stuffed backpack, looking for a requested document while wearing glasses to simulate having an outdated prescription.

In another room, 9-year-old Hannah Braucht struggled to keep four bicycle wheels moving at the same time to replicate the many tasks required to navigate through social and government services.

“When you’re doing four things at once and you have to do them all at the same time you’re like, ‘Oh no, no, no how to I balance my time,” she said and sighed heavily.

Braucht also planned to spend the night in the car with her grandmother Val Funk. She admitted to being a little scared. 

"Even when I’m camping, I have a sleeping bag and stuff but I know some homeless people don’t even have a car so they have to sleep on benches.”

Pierce Vrooman, a 12-year-old at Bloomington Junior High, is an old pro as a three-year veteran of a Night in a Car. He brought along his laptop, not to watch movies, but to do his homework as if he were a student challenged with keeping up with his school work while homeless.

For the first time, Pierce’s mother Helene decided to join her son. She planned to take a hardcore approach, remaining in her car the entire night without retreating to the church, even for a bathroom break, and vowing not to start up her car for heat.

“I really want to experience what they (those who are homeless) experience because there aren’t places for them to go into after a certain period of time in the evening,” she said. 

Participants were rewarded with a hot breakfast prepared by volunteers. They receieved a briefing on other steps they can take to be part of a more permanent solution to ending homelessness.


FULL interview

Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.