It was the start of a very long day after a very short night. Eighth graders from Seattle's TOPS school are learning what it's like to be homeless. Fifty-eight students are sleeping on the floors of community centers and churches for three days this week. On Tuesday night, a group of them spread out their sleeping bags at a foster care advocacy group's offices, when they realized the lights wouldn't go off.
"We clumped all the tables together and slept under the tables so we could have some sort of darkness," said student Evan Owens.
They we're up by 7 a.m. on Wednesday, and on their way to pass out food to the hungry at the Rainier Valley Food Bank which is encountering the greatest need in its 23 year history.
"It's hard just seeing how sad people are," said Rachel Kolpa. "I am so privileged and it's sad to see that other people can't live the way that I can."
The students aren't sure where they will sleep or eat for three days. Barely one day into their experience, it was already taking a toll.
"I thought it would be kind of easier than this," said Adam Espiritu.
After a night of sleeping on the floor, a breakfast of cold cereal and a morning of working at the food bank, they started scrounging for snacks.
"I haven't had a hot meal since Monday night," said Gabe Whisman. "It seems so hard to do this. I just can't imagine how they do it."
Accompanied by school chaperones, the kids walk everywhere they go. By bedtime on Wednesday they had logged about 8 miles. They're each given just $2 a day to eat. On Wednesday they decided to pool their money to buy a couple of pizzas.
"It's a cheap option so it's gonna have to work," said Kolpa. "I see how it would be hard to eat healthy."
The students soon found their $16 didn't go very far. Two Domino's pizzas were $17.50. A generous pizza man cut them a break, and the group ate their two slices each, with nothing to drink.
Then it was off to volunteer at a center for women refugees and another night sleeping on the floor.
The Seattle School Department reports 2,370 students were homeless last year. That's up nearly 30% from the year before.
On Friday, advocates for homeless youth plan to gather at United Churches of Olympia at 9 a.m. and then march to the Capitol. They're pushing for passage of HB 2335 which would extend foster care to children until their 21st birthday. They say 35% of all kids who age out of foster care at 18 end up homeless at some point. Anyone interested in learning more should visit www.mockingbirdsociety.org.
The three day experience for the TOPS students is just a taste of how thousands of their Seattle schoolmates live every day. It's one that leaves them grateful for all they have.
"I think I'll have more empathy," said Owens. "I'll know what it's like to be in their shoes, except I get to go home tomorrow and sleep in a bed."