Celia Miller, left, University of Alaska Fairbanks senior in biology, and Blake Eggemeyer, a senior in computer science, stand by a burn barrel. They are participating in an event, sponsored by the UAF Honors Program to raise awareness and money during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Donations go to the Street Outreach Advocacy Program in Fairbanks.

As I crossed campus, I noticed two students hovering over a burn barrel, two bright-colored tents in the background.

I stopped to read the hand-lettered signs made from cardboard boxes–their messages were illegible from a distance–and I was just plain curious about why students had pitched tents in the center of campus.

“I can’t read the signs,” I said. On closer inspection, the signs had statistics about homelessness in Alaska and Fairbanks and a small coffee can with another hand-lettered sign solicited donations.

“We’re camping out for six nights,” said Celia Miller, a University of Alaska Fairbanks senior in biology. “And standing out here raising money and awareness during the day.”

The UAF Honors Program sponsors the event, now in its third year, the second year the students have camped. Donations go to the Street Outreach Advocacy Program in Fairbanks.

“Last year we got $700 raised,” said Miller, one of 10 students participating. “We’re hoping to meet or exceed that.”

Most students passed without stopping, a few with paper cups of coffee in their hands. A group of elementary students crunched, crunched, crunched past the display in large herd of boots and hoods. A man hustled back and put a $20 bill in the can. I think one of the children might have said something.

Lauren Tibbitts, a freshman in history and English, and Erin Larsen, a freshman in music education, stopped to talk.

“It’s cold. I can’t imagine,” Tibbitts said, explaining she didn’t know how people survived sleeping outside. “I have checks. I will come down.”

For Blake Eggemeyer, a senior in computer science, raising awareness is as important as raising money.

“Some people are homeless by choice. You don’t need to look down on homeless people,” he said. “Being homeless in Fairbanks is difficult. I don’t like that some people stereotype homeless people as drug-using, drunken individuals. A lot of people who are homeless, you wouldn’t even know they’re homeless. They’re living in tents or on couches.”

UAF Honors Program students created signs that list statistics from a January 2009 survey on the number of homeless people in Fairbanks and Alaska.

The statistics posted on the sign date to a survey conducted in January 2009, listing 428 homeless people in Fairbanks and 4,583 in Alaska.

“In Fairbanks, only 50 are chronically homeless,” Miller said. “Most people it’s not long-term.”

For their six days, the students will take turns standing at the burn barrel and sleeping in the tents. “It depends on our class schedules,” Miller said.

Sarah Richards, a junior in journalism, arrived with her nine-month-old daughter, Amelia, wrapped in a fuchsia jumpsuit, and rejoined Miller and Eggemeyer at the burn barrel.

Amber Sandlin, a freshman in journalism, stopped to interview them for the student newspaper, The Sun Star. Periodically, she held her bare hand clutching a pen over the barrel to warm the ink and her fingers.

“Don’t judge. Donate,” Sandlin said to students who passed.

Miller admitted they needed better signs and they planned to improve them with black paint and bigger letters later in the afternoon.

And yet, they are effective.

“People have to stop to read them,” Miller said.

They got my attention, my admiration–and a donation.

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