RICHLAND — The sweatshirts to be handed out to participants in the "Raise Your Tents" campout in Richland carry a set of Bible verses reminding them of why they are there.
The verses -- Romans 12:10-13 -- are a message to share brotherly love, to honor others above self, to do God's work and to share with people in need.
It's primarily the latter principle that motivates those who will weather the January cold to spend a night or even a week outdoors to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless in the Tri-City area.
"(The campout) is designed to mimic one of the problems associated with homelessness," said Ben Cook, an event organizer.
The campout starts Friday, with participants paying $50 for a plot on the north lawn of Central United Protestant Church, where they can pitch a tent anytime until Jan. 22.
Organizers say campers will get a taste of what it's like to have just a flimsy bit of cloth separating them from the outdoors in the middle of winter. That's the reality many homeless people face.
"Summer is one thing, but winter creates a whole new dynamic," Cook said. "Every year we read about somebody freezing to death because they can't get inside."
The camping fee also buys participants a sweatshirt, as well as the camaraderie of fellow campers trying to live the principles of love, sacrifice and sharing in those Bible verses.
All of the money raised from the campout will go to the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco. In 2010, the event raised more than $10,000 for the nonprofit mission, which runs the only homeless shelter in the Tri-Cities.
Donations of food, warm clothing and blankets for the mission also will be accepted from those not wishing to camp.
Don Porter, the mission's executive director, said the campout "certainly does bring awareness."
"When it gets cold, people have to go somewhere. They can't stay out. Of course, people who are going to stay in their tents are not like the average homeless person, but they're experiencing somewhat what it's like to be out."
Many of the homeless spend the winter huddling in doorways or under the shelter of an evergreen tree. They are lucky if they have cars to sleep in, Porter said.
"Very few people have cold weather gear," he said.
The mission's shelter consistently has been at or near capacity of about 100 men in the men's shelter and 30 women and children in the women's shelter.
But with 433 people identified as homeless in the annual count performed last January, that leaves hundreds searching for someplace else to go, whether it's a friend's couch, a motel or outside.
And the number of homeless Benton and Franklin county residents has started rising after having dropped for several years.
The annual count performed by Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee found a 14 percent increase from the 381 people counted in 2009 to the 433 counted in 2010.
Of those counted as homeless, 136 had spent the night in an emergency shelter, 236 were in some kind of transitional housing, 17 lived outside, 39 lived in vehicles and five in buildings considered unfit for habitation.
Another 448 people were identified as being at-risk for becoming homeless, up from 410 in 2009, or a 9 percent increase.
Porter said even when there's money to help, finding permanent housing is difficult in a rental market with few vacancies and rising prices.
And the state government is cutting more and more programs for the homeless and poor as it wrestles with dropping revenues.
"They don't have anywhere to go," Porter said. "It's difficult out there."
A number of people are homeless for the first time, having lost their jobs and their homes when the nation plunged into a lengthy recession.
Porter said those people might be less likely to come to the mission for help because they don't think of themselves as homeless.
"Frequently it's like, 'This is for somebody else. This is not me,' " he said. "They just view the mission as for those people who are really down and out. They have a real struggle with it."
But for those who do walk through the mission's doors, the "Raise Your Tents" event may help pay for a hot meal or a blanket. Or it might help pay for an expanded facility once the mission is ready to build.
"It is a tremendous idea," Porter said of the campout. "It really can be something. We think this is one of the events the community can get behind and become a significant fundraiser for the mission over the years."
For information about the event and how to register, go to cupchurch.org/ministries/missions/ raise-your-tents.
Cook said participants also can register and pay the $50 fee at the church lawn when they check in. Campers can stay any amount of time they choose between Friday and Jan. 22.
* Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org