Executive director discusses the importance of the 48 Hours in the Life: The Homeless Experience Project 3.0

HENDERSON, Ky. (WEHT) – Some people spent 48 hours living as if they were homeless to bring awareness to the struggles of Evansville’s homeless population.

According to Aurora Evansville’s website, Zac Heronemus was appointed Executive Director by the Board of Directors and joined Aurora, Inc. in January 2020. He leads the agency’s strategic direction, serves as the chief development officer and supports Aurora Evansville’s team of professionals who work to prevent and end homelessness in Evansville and the surrounding community. These efforts include Aurora Evansville’s Rapid-Rehousing, Re-Entry, Permanent Supportive Housing, Housing First, Diversion and Homeless Street Outreach programs.

In reference to the project, Heronemus says, “Aurora’s 48 Hours In The Life is an immersive exercise where 10 participants from our community spend 48 hours experiencing what the clients at Aurora… from a day-to-day basis face… throughout the experience. We leverage this event to help raise awareness and the funds necessary that Aurora’s providing top-notch case management services and moving folks from experiencing homelessness to being housed, stabilized and on their way to thriving.”

Heronemus says the project does help people gain a better understanding of the homeless experience. He explains that prior to all participants going out to do their 48 hours, a pre-test is issued. Later on, people take a post-test and the team at Aurora finds that people’s understanding of the homeless experience is “enlightening” to them.

“They see the challenges in trying to access food, in trying to access shelter, in trying to access additional resources… So far, what we’ve seen is a tremendous takeaway and what we hope to accomplish, which are folks that are super advocates for the work Aurora and our partners and homeless services are carrying out.”

Heronemus notes that throughout the past two years, he has observed that people were so quick to help others out and take genuine interest in other people’s stories.

On the first year, Heronemus and two others were at a soup kitchen, and they ran into some people—one from off the street and one recently housed—who were interested in Heronemus and his group’s backstories. The ones they ran into talked about the impact Aurora had on them, and these words were unprompted by Heronemus’s group. In the second year, a couple placed in the same group for the homeless experience met some people who were actually experiencing homelessness. These people were willing to help the couple out and told them where to find bus tokens, food and clothes.

“The big takeaway, especially with this particular pair throughout the event, was the fact that despite folks needing help themselves, how willing they were to make sure that they could point people in the right direction and make sure that they could point people in the right direction and make sure they were in a better position to move themselves in a better direction.”

According to Heronemus, participants are very cognizant that this is only 48 hours of an immersive experience, which is not true for the individuals and their families on the streets and in the shelters. However, he says his team has put together something as realistic as possible, despite knowing those who participate in the experience will soon get back to their usual lives.

“Some of the challenges that we see most often are transportation… Some of the big challenges are… the times of access, whether it’s meals at soup kitchens… the same thing with our food pantries. So that compounded with the weather and the elements and often times idle time on your hands is challenging, especially when you think about the day-to-day you and I may be accustomed to and most people are accustomed to here.”

Heronemus explained how the event came about and what he hopes the event will accomplish.

“We discerned here at Aurora what we were really hoping to accomplish. Aside from the fact that it does help raise necessary funds for our organization, we really wanted to elevate awareness through this experience through the individuals to not just go through and raise funds for us, but to go through it and come out with a changed perspective. We wanted to change the narrative on what it is really that folks think about when they think about people experiencing homelessness.”

Heronemus says it’s not just a mental health issue; it’s not just a substance abuse issue; it’s not just ‘they’re lazy.’ He notes that there are real challenges that are going on in the community, poverty being one of them.

“Couple that with the fact that we have one of the highest rates of evictions within our community, and we have a recipe for why we have such a high population per capita here in Evansville and Southwestern Indiana.”

You can watch the entire interview in the player above.