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Heartland President Cornille reflects on a ‘Night in a Car’

February 5, 2019

On the first weekend in February, President Keith Cornille spent the night in his car to raise money to fight homlessness in McLean County.

Volunteers from throughout the community commited to help Home Sweet Home Ministries "Night in a Car" event raise a goal of $100,000 to provide food and shelter for the homeless.

President Cornille wrote his reflections on the experience of one night in the cold with only his vehicle for shelter.


Feb. 2, 2019

Last night in freezing temperatures, during a week that saw record cold temps I spent a night in my car, not out of necessity like some 500,000 Americans who find themselves homeless on any given night, though by choice. 

I remember as a child spending the night in our blue Country Squire Ford station wagon. My parents would load all of us, my ten siblings and me, in the back of the Ford packed with blankets and pillows. My dad would put down the middle seat so we had one large area to lay in. My mother would pack a cooler with beverages and snacks and off we were to the drive-in movie for a night in the car. We eventually would all fall asleep and wake up in the morning back in our beds.  

Though last night was different: there was no drive-in movie and, as I am now in the latter half of my 50s, no one was going to carry me into my bed. However, I did load up my Toyota Highlander with blankets and a pillow and put down the back seats to have a place to sleep. I was participating in the “Night in a Car” event in Bloomington/Normal sponsored by Home Sweet Home Ministry and Trinity Lutheran Church. It’s an event developed to allow individuals to experience what it might be like for unsheltered individuals facing homelessness. 

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a projected that approximately 3.5 million people become homeless in the United States during the course of a year, with 1.35 million of them being children.

The experience was nothing like the excitement of my childhood. I gave myself certain rules to better understand what those less fortunate than me might experience, such as not running the car for more than ten minutes in an hour to conserve gas and my battery. I was only to use the church facilities in an emergency and never to warm up. And I was not to use any devices (computer, phone for games…), only using my phone only within the first hour to say good night to my family members. I did bring a book, though I came to find that it is challenging to read in the dark.  It was to be just me and a cold winter night.  

The first hour was fine. I journaled the best I could with limited light, capturing my takeaways from the education/awareness sessions on homelessness that were presented before heading off to our vehicles. It was an excellent part of the program that exhibited how often we do not know what others are facing; the despair of circumstances and the fact that so many go unnoticed.  I also logged what I observed from walking around to see what others were doing – some on phones though most settling in for the night. Many of the vehicles were running as it got cold quick with temperatures in the teens.  I stopped in on a member of the Home Sweet Home staff member who was spending the night in a UPS Brown Box van --  with no heat and a metal floor -- that he talked his UPS delivery driver into using.  

I returned to my vehicle about 11pm, called my wife and daughter and then just sat. It got cold and surprisingly lonely over the next hour. I can see how the silence and need for personal interaction could be depressing. I found myself thinking about the cold, my thirst, my hunger. I could see how an individual might be led to rehashing a day or evening of their despair; thinking of how their situation might be hopeless. I reflected on my family and said a prayer of thanks for what I have as well as a prayer of hope for those who were going through a night in their car, not by choice. 

I made it through the night. It was cold, temperatures never warmed to over the teens and twenties. I only managed just over four hours of actual sleep, waking occasionally (4 times in fact) shivering.  So I took in five minutes of heat and time to re-maneuver and stretch my legs and shoulders, which had become stiff and sore. Heading into the evening I thought I had dressed appropriately: in dress slacks (yes I know, but my jeans were in the washing machine) with no thermal underwear, I had a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pull over shirt, hoodie, coat, knit cap, two pair of socks and gym shoes - all which were not enough. At 5:00am, I woke for the day - cold, tired, lonesome and a bit sad. I laid there again reflecting on things – as there was always more than enough time to think and contemplate. At 6:00am, I went into the gym with the rest of the participants for some breakfast and reflection.

By 8:00am, showered and warm, I was reflecting on the fact that that my night out in a car, though eye opening, was not real. I thought about what if my life took me in a different direction, and I was forced to live in my car with my family, how would I make it?  

For starters how would I afford gas? How long can I run the car without running out of gas? Could I find a parking area that was safe and well lit? If my children and wife were with me, where would they sleep, how would I keep them safe, would I get to sleep trying avoid trouble from others in or near my parking location? If the police came, would they take my children away? And then in the morning, where would we go to get cleaned up for the day? Would I need to go to work or school and smell? Would my children have breakfast? Would they fall asleep in class and have to deal with the taunts of other children because possibly smelled or worse knew our truth?  And all of this, I am sure, is only scratching the surface.  

I do not try to pretend that my one night is anything near what individuals who are homeless experience on a daily basis. After all I got go home this morning. Though I am grateful for what I have and sad to think of what so many individuals, families and children have to go through. In today’s day and age and living in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known to have this “true” humanitarian crisis taking place is shameful. 

My night showed me just how difficult this journey is for some and just how grateful I am to my parents for all they gave me and my siblings and for the fact that as kids, our nights in a car were at a drive-in, unlike the ~1.35 million children that experience homelessness each year, any of whom may be spending tonight in a car.   

I challenge you do what you can to help others every day of your life and take time to create 10 smiles a days as you may not know how it makes a difference.

- Keith Cornille


Written by: Steve Fast