Art and storytelling event gives voice to local homeless community

Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 4:54pm

Robert Lee Mitchell shares his story at the Voices of Homelessness event in Ypsilanti Friday

Robert Lee Mitchell shares his story at the Voices of Homelessness event in Ypsilanti Friday Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

The Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Shelter Association of Washtenaw County hosted the second-ever Voices of Homelessness event Friday evening in Ypsilanti, inviting community members to share their experiences with homelessness through art and storytelling.

A Washtenaw Housing Alliance 2018 report found 256 people in the county live in shelters or transitional housing, while 28 people are completely unsheltered. The speak-out, which marked the beginning of National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week, was intended to spread awareness about homelessness and connect displaced people to resources.

Representatives from several housing and public health organizations, including Ozone House and Michigan Movement, attended Friday evening, distributing information about their efforts to support the local homeless population to a crowd of around 60. According to Eastern Michigan University student Olivia Harris, who works for the Shelter Association, the audience was composed of locals interested in the event as well as people currently experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of the agency members, we tried to put them out of the shelters, so there’s a homeless population here as well to get directed to resources, and there’s just a bunch of people from the community,” Harris said.

Following about half an hour of unstructured time during which attendees were encouraged to browse the art collection, Amanda Carlisle, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, kicked off the evening by commending the work of the organizations contributing to Voices of Homelessness.

After Carlisle’s introduction, 12 speakers, who were only identified by their first names, told their own stories about homelessness, explaining their backgrounds and sharing lessons and knowledge drawn from their experiences. Many of the stories included themes of mental illness and self-discovery. Other common sentiments among the speakers were frustration with the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness and a desire to combat the stigma surrounding homelessness.

The first speaker, Robin, explained how she moved to Michigan as a 12 year old after losing her family’s farm in Alabama. Though Robin’s aunt in Michigan promised housing to Robin, her mother and her sister, they were forced to live in an unheated, bed bug-ridden van in the aunt’s backyard. Robin said the experience, which lasted nine months, was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. Becuase the women had nothing to eat, Robin often skipped school in order to steal food.

Robin said she was deeply hurt by her aunt’s refusal to help. One main takeaway from her time being homeless was to trust and invest time only in the people who truly care.

“Trust only the ones that actually want to help you,” Robin said. “Money, you can earn it, you can take it away, but the real ones, they stick with you.”

Next, a pair of twins, Zakiya and Sakina, shared a spoken word performance titled “Scattered Thoughts.” They touched on the effects, both financial and emotional, of their father’s incarceration and absence during their childhood. The twins also highlighted systemic discrimination and the difficulties of growing up in poverty. A county health department report last year found Washtenaw County ranked 81 out of 83 counties across the state in economic inequality. 

“Dad was never home, only he’s locked up, we were the ones imprisoned by the system in the system,” the women said together.

One speaker, James, emphasized the importance of using his story to reach others. James said he left his abusive household at age 15, living out of a car and selling candy for income all through high school. He said he put on a “mask” at school, wearing high-quality clothes and accessories, to hide his homelessness from his classmates.

After high school, James went to Eastern Michigan University, where he struggles with having no home other than the dorms. He is currently part of a theater group at his school, and said during each performance, he hopes to connect with people in the audience who may be experiencing similar struggles. James also reminded his listeners not to judge others without knowing their full story.

“Your life is composed of 100 percent from start to end,” James said. “The first 10 percent is what happens to you, the other 90 percent is how you react to it. Don’t make a snap judgement off a snapshot of somebody’s life. That 10 percent that you see is not the entirety.”

Similarly, Carvel, a speaker who lived as a homeless veteran, said homelessness was a humbling experience that taught him to be less judgmental.  Carvel said his struggles helped him to see others’ humanity and to extend a hand to others in need.

“I’ll never again look down on someone who needs help,” Carvel said. “I might not have money but I’ll definitely make sure you get something to eat if I can. And if I can’t give you food or water, I can make sure that I can at least give you kindness, because it goes a long way.”

Two speakers, Sharon and Joe, opened up about their histories of drug abuse. Sharon, who used crack cocaine for years and now suffers from numerous health problems, lives in Ann Arbor and has found support through Avalon Housing and the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. Joe grew up in an upper middle-class household but also developed a crack-cocaine addiction. He said he’s learned from his mistakes, emphasizing his belief that everything happens for a reason.

Joe also challenged the stereotype that people become homeless due to drugs alone.

“Most of these people were well-educated people with degrees, had it good, but for whatever reason life threw them a curveball,” Joe said.

Ramone Williams, who asked to be identified by his full name, called the audience to action, claiming everyone deserves a safety net to keep them from slipping into homelessness. Though Williams is currently not homeless, he said he doesn’t have a network of family and friends to support him, and therefore feels he’s one bad decision away from losing his stability.

Williams argued housing needs to be more available and more affordable. Ann Arbor housing costs in particular have residents voicing concern. According to the U.S Census Bureau, the average rent in Ann Arbor from 2012-2016 was $1,114.

“I have no support, no connections, I don’t have that backing that a lot of people have,” Williams said. “There should be something in place to help people like me.”

The story from Seth, another speaker at the event, differed slightly from the others shared in that Seth experienced discrimination for being a transgender male. Seth said he lost his job in 2006 for being transgender, and lost his home soon after. Seth was turned away from many shelters due to his transgender status and finally made his way to the Ann Arbor Shelter Association, which accepted him as a man.

Seth cited a statistic sourced from the True Colors fund that LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely than their straight counterparts to become homeless in their lifetimes. He also said institutional changes must be made to address the homelessness crisis. For instance, he argued anti-camping laws discriminate against displaced people. Seth said as a transgender, financially disadvantaged person he has little political power, but urged the audience to talk to politicians and fight for change.

“We need to not criminalize basic needs,” Seth said. “Each and every person in this room has the power to be able to stop that criminalization.”

After the event, Mickeila Tate, who recently finished a seven-month campaign for mayor of Ypsilanti, said she appreciated the event because it allowed the voices of the local homeless population to be heard.

“I wanted to hear more people’s stories, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just the only one that was peeping that it’s time to do something now,” Tate said. “This is an urgent matter to me.”

Tate, a former displaced foster youth who experienced homelessness, said her campaign was centered around helping the poor. Though she lost the election to Ypsilanti City Council member Beth Bashert, she said she plans to keep pushing for reform.

“My main concern during my campaign time was oppression on the poor and trying to get people rebuilt,” Tate said. “If the poor are not getting built up and stabilized, then the whole body is going to fall.”

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