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Fire and Crowd Hazards Force Habitat to Modify Fundraiser

By Sanjay Basu


Fears sparked by past protests and fire hazard concerns have hampered MIT’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity efforts at hosting a community service event.

On May 6, Habitat organizers will sponsor 100 members of the MIT community, including faculty members and administrators, who will sleep on Kresge Oval and kick off Habitat’s “Eight Months to $80,000” campaign, an effort to raise $80,000 for poverty housing development by New Year’s Eve.

Habitat’s original idea for the event included having participants sleep in boxes in order to gain sympathy for the experience of a homeless person. Now participants will sleep on the ground.

“The Cambridge Fire Department just told us we can’t use boxes,” said Catherine K. Foo, an organizer for the event. The Facilities Use Committee agreed. “They were worried that people would be sitting in their boxes, smoking and lighting candles ... [The Committee was also] worried about strangers wandering off the street and joining our event,” Foo said.

While fire hazards were rectified by eliminating the boxtown idea, the group faced concerns about crowd control, noise, and a 1 a.m. curfew on campus events.

“We decided to fence off the oval and use wristbands so we can keep track of who belongs there.”

Although MIT took measures to change the event, they nevertheless support Habitat, according to Assistant Dean Katie O’Dair. “We are very supportive of this idea and think that the students have done a wonderful job in responding to some of the concerns we had, including non-MIT access to the event, noise levels for abutting residences and events, safety of students participating, logistics, and rain plan,” O’Dair said. “We want to be particularly aware of safety issues as students will be outside all night.”

Those participating in the sleepout will collect pledges to sponsor the building of both one Boston home and two houses overseas. During the fundraiser, speakers will discuss poverty housing and the homeless.

Habitat for Humanity is a service group known for building and sponsoring housing development projects for the homeless.

Past boxtown event disrupted MIT

In 1990, MIT’s Coalition against Apartheid erected a shantytown on the Oval to protest the Institute’s investment policies. The students built a shack and sat around it to oppose MIT’s purchasing of products from companies investing in South Africa. MIT claimed its holdings totaled $84 million, although the coalition claimed that the figure was $289 million. Police arrested 26 of the student protesters.

The protest drew several people from around Cambridge, who occupied the shanty and were dismissed by Campus Police. A later rally opposing the arrest of the 26 students drew over 200 protesters and resulted in 32 more arrests, including that of an MIT lecturer and a Tech photographer who were not involved in the event.

Although Habitat’s plan is far from a protest, memories of the shantytown idea were stirred in administrators afraid of people unaffiliated with MIT coming onto the Oval.

But the boxtown idea proved successful at other universities raising money for Habitat groups. In 1997, the University of Connecticut held a “Loveshack” sleep-out fundraiser in 20 degree weather, with record turnout. Johns Hopkins University students recently raised $5,000 through a similar fundraiser.

MIT Habitat members have adjusted their proposal to eliminate the boxes from their event, making campus committees and safety office officials more likely to approve this new plan.

“If they have decided to sleep out without cardboard boxes in sleeping bags or blankets, then the plan is a good one and we can move forward in taking care of all of the logistical details,” said O’Dair. “The ultimate goal is awareness of issues of homelessness, and this event would be successful in meeting this goal even without cardboard boxes.”

Sleepout is second recent event

The sleepout will mark the second Habitat for Humanity event in recent weeks. Last Saturday, the group organized “Campus Build,” a project to construct sections of walls for fifteen homes in Roxbury.

The frames constructed by MIT students will be incorporated into homes built next month. 50,000 families are currently on waiting lists for affordable housing in the Boston area.

“With the help of 85 volunteers, 62 frames were built in 6 hours,” said Habitat member Kristina E. Lopez-Bernal ’02. That amounts to three or four days of work. “Both the WB and Fox came out to cover the story.” The group reportedly raised $1,420.36 in total from Campus Build.