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Assisting her brother through homelessness and mental illness has helped turn author Laura Noe into an advocate who shares her story statewide to assist others and build awareness. On Saturday, April 27, Noe will be a presenter at The Big Sleep Out 2019 on the Guilford Green. (Photo courtesy of Laura Noe )
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Last spring, Laura Noe was taking her favorite drive into Guilford along scenic Route 146 when she saw a sign that made her stop and turn around.
“It was a sign on the St. George property about The Big Sleep Out and homelessness awareness. I took a picture of it, and I drove home and Googled it,” says Laura, a Branford resident.
What she learned was that a 16-year-old Guilford resident, Ella Stanley, was organizing a full-blown homelessness awareness project. Laura was floored to see the event planned to offer speakers, educational and hands-on activities, a soup-kitchen-style meal, and a cold night for participants spent “sleeping out” on the Guilford Green. As a local writer with a pertinent story to share, Laura knew she had to get involved.
“I called Ella and told her my story, and told her my brothers story—Ed was homeless for 25 years—and I told her that I would love to be involved, in any way,” says Laura. “And she asked me to be a presenter. She asked me to tell the story.”
At last year’s event, “I shared Ed’s story at [a] church that night, and then I wound up sleeping on the green,” says Laura.
On Saturday, April 27, Laura will return to give a talk as part of The Big Sleep Out 2019. The night-into-morning event is once again being organized by Stanley, a past Courier Person of the Week.
“I can’t say enough about Ella,” says Laura. “Ella and her generation—I have a son who’s 19—is the hope. They care, they show up. They don’t just talk, they do. They take action.”
The Big Sleep Out 2019 begins with check-in at 4:30 p.m. on April 27 and carries through to an overnight sleep-out on the Town Green, wrapping at up at 7:30 a.m. the next day. Advance registration is required; participants in grade 8 and younger must have an adult chaperone). Participants are also asked to make a pledge to the event’s beneficiary, non-profit homelessness support organization Columbus House in New Haven.
On April 27, a Columbus House-style evening meal for all will be served in the St. George Catholic Church Hall on the green. Presentations/workshops will follow at several faith organization locations around the green. For those who won’t be able to sleep out overnight, the event’s “almost sleep out” registration invites participation in all programs, presentations, and workshops until 10 p.m. on April 27.
Now 17 and a junior at Guilford High School (GHS), Stanley’s vision for The Big Sleep Out has been supported, from the start, by the St. George Pastoral Council, together with participation by faith organizations in Guilford. She also receives the town’s permission to use a part of the green for the sleep-over—and a fire pit, to help provide some comfort to those who will spend the night in sleeping bags on the ground. She gathers volunteers from St. George Men’s Group to help secure the green during the overnight sleepout and many community members and GHS students to assist with hands-on help.
“She’s a quiet leader,” says Laura of Stanley. “She has a great idea, and she has no problem pulling people together, delegating, listening to ideas and getting creative.”
Laura says just one example of that creativity was to take a clichéd idea about homelessness and turn it into a teachable moment during the first Big Sleep Out in Guilford.
“Most people associate homeless people with holding a cardboard sign saying, ‘Need Money,’ ‘Need Job,’ ‘Homeless,’” says Laura. “Last year, [Stanley] had her fellow students craft signs that had homeless statistics on them. So they used that same platform, but they quoted stats from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.”
One statistic shared on the homepage of The Big Sleep Out 2019 (thebigsleepoutguilford.weebly.com) is that more than half a million people in the U.S. are homeless, with 30 percent sleeping on the street each night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A corporate executive turned full-time author and advocate, Laura is currently writing a book, Tree Man, about her brother’s homelessness experience. One of the most important themes is that “this can happen to anyone,” she says.
“We come from about as white-bread a family as you can come from—middle of the road, public-schooled,” says Laura. “And my story comes out of that background.”
Her brother’s street name, Tree Man, was due to a deep love he holds for trees, even while living with undiagnosed schizophrenia and anosognosia, which impairs a person’s ability to recognize their mental illness, leading to them refusing to seek treatment or medication—or, as Laura explains, “it’s the biological equivalent of denial.”
As an advocate, Laura offers her services, for free, to help build up the homelessness/mental health issue discussion among communities and professions, such as law enforcement, across the state.
She started out by educating herself further a few years back, joining sessions and classes offered by National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). Through that, she met an instructor who encouraged her to assist NAMI by sharing her story at law enforcement Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) talks in Connecticut.
“She wanted me to talk to the cops to give them some hope, because they often are dealing with [people with] mental illness, and it can be very stressful for them,” says Laura, adding, “they do love it, because it’s 100 percent authentic.”
Laura has now participated in CIT training for more than two years.
“One of the things I tell them—and the cops know this, but the general public does not—is that homelessness and mental illness are typically hold hands,” she says.
At The Big Sleep Out 2019, Laura will be sharing the essence of the story of her brother Ed’s “journey into, through, and out of homelessness.” More details on all presentations and workshops appear at The Big Sleep 2019 website.
Part of the journey Laura shares with her talk was assisting her brother in “getting through the system, which is complex and complicated,” she says.
She’s grateful for the support of a “community care team,” which involved a network of organizations and volunteers helping her take up his case to build a strategy for success. She adds that, for her brother, there is a happy ending.
“Not only is he still alive, he’s thriving. He’s medicated, housed, and has a full-time job,” says Laura. “So I have great ‘new’ news to share this year.”
Personally, the experience has also changed Laura’s life, too.
“Witnessing his transformation—25 years homeless—transformed me. It shifted my life’s purpose,” she says. “So now, I go anywhere. Anyone who wants to hear my story, I tell it.”
As someone who also brought her sleeping bag and joined The Big Sleep Out 2018, Laura encourages all interested parties to take the plunge and stay the night on the Green.
She adds she’s thrilled to be able to help Stanley with The Big Sleep Out and the awareness it brings to the shoreline.
“Ella does an amazing job of shining a light on an area that needs light and needs love so badly,” says Laura. “She’s bringing it to Guilford, where if there are homeless people, you don’t see them out. This is how you do it. You go grassroots, you bring it home. And you bring the people who are not aware of it, you make them aware.”
If she could add an awareness arm to this incredible campaign, it would be to pump up the national and statewide conversation on the need for more affordable housing, Laura adds.
“Homelessness is ‘lacking housing,’” she says. “We need to have a countrywide conversation about affordable housing. We live in a very expensive state. Affordable housing is something we all need to be talking about, and making it more realistic.”
The Big Sleep Out 2019 on the Guilford Green takes place Saturday, April 27. For more information, to register, or to make a donation, visit thebigsleepoutguilford.weebly.com. Donations made out to Columbus House may also be mailed; send a check (write “Big Sleep Out” in memo) to: The Big Sleep Out c/o Columbus House, 586 Ella T Grasso Blvd, New Haven, CT 06519.