True Stories

Open Our Eyes: How Two-Weeks in a Homeless Shelter Collecting Stories Opened Mine

By | Nov 9, 2010

Today marks the launch of Open Our Eyes: Seeing the Invisible People of Homelessness, a collection of personal stories of those experiencing homelessness, and the people who work so hard to make sure not another person has to experience such hardship.

The stories of homelessness in the book are personal testimonials collected by Mark Horvath, the founder of Invisible People. Proceeds from the book go to support Invisible People’s work of illuminating the need to address one of America’s darkest issues.

I was lucky enough to be invited to write a short piece for Open Our Eyes. I’m not going to write about what I wrote in the book, you’re going to have to pick up your own copy for that. Instead, I am going to write about how the personal stories in Open Our Eyes brought me back to how I ended up in this sector in the first place.

I generally avoid writing about personal stories, instead preferring analytical pieces. Indeed, my approach to the social sector is decidedly head over heart. But as we all know, it is our hearts that gets us into this line of work.

For me I started down this path about a decade ago volunteering in a homeless shelter in San Jose, California. One of my first assignments was to accompany a group of unhoused persons to a City of San Jose Housing Authority meeting, where the shelter residents provided testimony on the need for more affordable housing.

I will never forget the absent look in the Housing Authority commissioners’ eyes as the shelter residents told their heart-wrenching stories. Naïve as I was then, I could not believe that that the commissioners had all but ignored the people before them, people who had nothing, apparently not even an audience.

Leaving that meeting, I was frustrated.

I was frustrated by the commissioners’ rude behavior. But I was more frustrated by my inability to do anything about it. And then it hit me, perhaps the only true out of the blue inspiration I have had in my life, I decided I was going to work with the shelter residents to write their stories in succinct and vivid prose.

Stories

For weeks I met one on one with the shelter residents. I wrote each of their stories, and worked with them on several drafts to get their stories just right. It was there in a shelter hall in San Jose, hearing the stories of a single father raising his son, a family of four with nowhere to go, and a college educated software developer who had fallen on hard times, that I learned about homelessness. It was in that shelter, with those people, that I dedicated myself to ending homelessness.

People will only care about homelessness if they know about it. The only way to learn about homelessness is to hit the streets.

Invisible People brings the streets to the Internet. By exposing more people to the realities of homelessness, Invisible People does for everyone on the Internet what weeks in a homeless shelter, documenting people’s stories, did for me.

Now that is powerful.

Impact

When I was finished compiling the shelter resident’s stories I submitted them to the San Jose Housing Authority, not really expecting them to do anything with it. I remember thinking “At least I helped the shelter residents feel better about themselves, feel like they were heard.”

Well, they were heard.

Their written testimonials were included in that year’s City of San Jose Consolidated Annual Action Plan, a document cities put together that includes amongst other things affordable housing plans.

Stories matter. Stories make a difference. Stories are the reasons that we do what we do.

I thank Mark and Invisible People for collecting people’s stories and for giving me the opportunity to share mine. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Open Our Eyes, read the stories in there, and share yours with us here on Poverty Insights.

One Comment

  1. Posted Oct 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

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