Oral Histories of Homelessness

As I walk past Union Station in Washington, DC, just as when I used to walk towards Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago, homeless people talk to me, ask me questions, wish me a good Tuesday, and bless me whether I help them or not, whether I look at them or not. With every encounter and every refusal to help, I am plagued with ethical questions that haunt me for the rest of the day. If I choose to be part of this society, then should I accept its injustice or do something about it?

This photo of Carla, Ron and their children was part of the traveling exhibit Homelessness Is My Address, Not My Name organized by Margaret Miles. Courtesy of the Oral History of Homelessness Project.

This photo of Carla, Ron and their children was part of the traveling exhibit Homelessness Is My Address, Not My Name organized by Margaret Miles. Courtesy of the Oral History of Homelessness Project.

A New York Times editorial recently discussed the impact of cuts to federal programs on families and individuals without stable housing. Two numbers were striking: 70,000 families who received rent vouchers last year did not receive them this year, and 60,000 people were removed from housing and emergency shelter programs this year because of the cuts.

For the April issue of Perspectives on History, I talked to historians who have collected oral histories of homeless or formerly homeless people. Dan Kerr, at American University, told me about transforming the process of collecting oral history so that it mobilizes individuals to organize and address common problems together. Louise Edwards-Simpson, at St. Catherine University, found female students at her university who were either currently or previously homeless.

If we want to address this problem, we need to understand its history and causes. My conversations with the historians who work on this issue taught me something that I did not expect. What I see when I see a homeless person is not their history and the resilience, resourcefulness, or courage that gets that person through each day, but my own fear that I might someday be alone, sick, and with nowhere to go. Another lesson I learned is that the faces I associate with homelessness are not representative. The people I see every day are a very small subset of a great variety of people who do not have a place to call home. I thought I knew what homelessness looks like, but I did not.

Homeless people are not hopeless people. They have voices, they take action, and they make choices to get out of harrowing circumstances—as I learned by talking to a woman who was herself homeless before she started college.

The scholars and activists I talked to are realistic and optimistic. They have found ways to integrate addressing this national problem into their daily lives by making it the focus of their scholarship. They are seeing tangible results, because their work has direct impact on the decisions of homeless people, nonprofits, and voting citizens.

I have not yet found the answers to the questions I ask myself as I walk towards the Union Station Metro, but this article is my first step towards facing them.

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