OGDEN -- Rachel Tomsic always wanted to volunteer her time for the homeless, and after spending the night outside, she's ready to get started.
Tomsic spent Friday night in a cardboard shelter at a Weber State University plaza with her boyfriend, Ben Barker, as well as at least 10 other people. Signs around campus brought his attention to the campout event, which was organized by AmeriCorps and the WSU community involvement center to raise awareness about homelessness.
"I've always wanted to do charity, especially with the homeless," she said, standing beside the makeshift home of cardboard and pink duct tape she and Barker built. After that night, she felt "the push" to start, particularly after hearing from Jared Legge.
Legge, an employee at St. Anne's Center, told students about the five years he lived on the streets after he injured his back falling off a roof he was working on.
The incident "turned his life upside down," he said. He lost his job and home, then spiraled into depression and self-loathing that led him to marijuana and, eventually, methamphetamine. At 23, he was homeless.
"You get into a cycle, a rut, and it's just about surviving," Legge said. "You're not thinking a year ahead, a month ahead, you're just thinking about tonight. How am I going to get through tonight?"
He eventually checked into St. Anne's and got his life back with the help available there.
But Legge is just one person. There are more than 14,000 people who were homeless in Utah last year, according to the state's annual report. St. Anne's is in the process of building a new, bigger shelter to help deal with the growing demand.
"There are students who are homeless," said Jeff Robbins, community partner liaison for the community involvement center. They may be forced to choose between tuition or rent and pick tuition because otherwise they risk losing their scholarships, he said.
The university wants to help, Robbins said. But that means people who need assistance need to speak out, he added.
The center's staff designed the campout on campus to help draw attention to all homeless people, not just students.
Before the campout, students assembled hygiene kits for St. Anne's to give to its guests. They sorted through donations to weed out any items that contain alcohol, such as mouthwash, then bundled razors, shampoo and other essentials into finished kits.
The kits seemed like a small gesture, but they mean a lot. The chance to clean up and shave, to feel new again, helps homeless people's self-esteem, Robbins said. Legge agreed.
The number of homeless people in Utah has dropped every year since at least 2006. But it's still a harsh reality for thousands of people -- 1,203 in Weber County during 2011 -- and one people like Tomsic hope to ease through volunteering.