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Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau

Smiles Amidst Tears

By Luke Perry

When David came in to talk about working with the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, the first thing I noticed was his glasses. They were broken down the middle and scotch tape was the only thing holding them together. I wondered about the story behind the glasses. The next thing I noticed was how gentle and deliberate David spoke. I really wondered about his story.

I was a little worried about how he would do, as he has a speech impediment that limits the speed and smoothness with which he speaks. Sometimes people have a very difficult time opening up and sharing their lives with others, especially when it has to do with something as personal, and in our society, as shameful, as homelessness. Yet, that personal connection is exactly what makes the Speakers' Bureau so special.

David and another speaker, JoAnn, went with me to speak to a group of college students on Spring Break wanting to learn more about homelessness. JoAnn spoke first, powerfully sharing her story of how a young woman who graduated at the top of her class ended up on the streets of DC for 10 years. She spoke of how she overcame the difficulties in her life and now finds strength in sharing her story with others.

David followed JoAnn by saying, "For the longest time, I was one of the millions of Americans one paycheck away from becoming homeless." He talked about how he had trouble holding down jobs for various reasons. He developed congestive heart failure and had a stroke, which now affects his speech. Unfortunately, his last job was one in which he spent a lot of time speaking on the phone, so he lost it fairly quickly, and found himself unable to pay rent. His landlord allowed him to stay for an extra month, but he was evicted in the dead of winter, with nowhere to go.

All of a sudden, David was where he never thought he would be. "Now I was one of those people I used to look at with contempt, as if they weren’t even a human being," he said. He understood how it felt to be looked at as if he was "the dirt on the bottom of someone’s shoe."

David was a rookie on the streets and didn’t know a thing about where to get help, food, or even shelter. After trying to survive in the freezing cold for a week, he went to a nearby shelter that someone had told him about. He reflected on how he felt that the workers at the shelter looked at him as just another dirty bum. David soon discovered breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen, but talked about how it was much more than just a meal. Even though they served breakfast where he was staying, he chose to walk the three miles to Miriam’s Kitchen because it was the one place he actually felt like a human being.

Midway through his speech, a steady stream of tears began rolling down my cheeks, as we were given a glimpse of how it actually feels to be homeless. I was compelled by David’s ability to open his heart to complete strangers. When he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. One girl left sobbing uncontrollably, but only to bring back a note for JoAnn and David that said:

"I just wanted to let you both know- because I know I wouldn’t be able to say it without crying my eyes out. You both are amazing people, and I admire your strength, courage and willingness to share your stories. You are a motivation for a young person like myself to take action for the many social issues that our society needs to confront and make better. Thank you for coming and sharing all that you did. You touched my heart."

As David and JoAnn received a barrage of thank-you’s and hugs from tear-laden college students that they had only met an hour before, David smiled at me and said, "If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have stood you up two weeks ago."

A few weeks later, Frederick, who was new to Speakers' Bureau, expressed some concern that he might cry while he spoke. I assured him that he would be fine, and that tears in this situation were not a bad thing. Frederick has been homeless for three years and spends his days shaking a cup full of change on the corner of 14th and K St. Yet, when he got up to talk for the first time, he didn’t speak about the struggles in his life. Instead, he spoke honestly and sincerely about the blessings and wonderful people in his life.

Frederick talked about "Miss Linda," and just the mention of her name brought tears to his eyes. One day she stopped and asked him why he was out on the streets. He finally told "Miss Linda" that he couldn’t read. The next time she saw Frederick, she asked him if he would like for her to help him read. The tears were streaming down his face as he said, "As soon as she asked me that, it was like everything just opened up and changed for the best." Since then they have been meeting weekly, and he soon hopes to be able to read the Bible and the newspaper. He went on to talk about all the wonderful people that stop to talk as well as listen to him, but most importantly give him a smiling face. Weeping uncontrollably in thanksgiving, Frederick’s own smile and spirit shone through brilliantly.

The Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau shares many struggles, victories, tears, stories, and tons of smiles. But most of all, we share ourselves. Through this, we are fighting homelessness, one person at a time.

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National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: Oct. 11, 2011

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