Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intern Insight: Homelessness - A Loss for Words

by Brittany Aubin

A professor once started his creative memoir class by admonishing students to write the story they thought they would never tell anyone. Five years later, this is the column I thought I would never write.

I joined Street Sense six months ago. I passed through the church door as a second–semester senior, hoping to gain valuable clips and salve a guilty conscience. I was still reeling from the disconnect between my own American University privilege and the lives of the city’s 6,000 homeless residents. I could write about that now, about how Street Sense bridges the divide of dignity between classes, placing faces, personalities and stories to the oft–avoided homeless population.

I could write about conversations with Jeff McNeil, with Moyo Onibuje, with Cliff Carle. Or moments of girl talk with Patricia Jefferson, Patty Smith and Alicia Jones. Or the kindness Orin Andrus shows for his cat, Cuddles. Or the smooth sales talk of Conrad Cheek Jr.

That column would be easy to write. It would also be easy to read. Because you’ve read it before. It’s the homelessness paradigm we feel most comfortable in.

Yet, nothing about being without a home is comfortable. Not the park benches or shelters. Not dehumanization or degradation. And the paradigms shouldn’t be, either.

Homeless, homelessness, homeless residents, homeless person – these words litter my articles at Street Sense. Nothing could be more literal. A coded adjective or noun that strips its article of identity and hope, wrapping gray woolen blankets across an objective black and white typeface. It is a panhandling addition to the lexicon, asking readers to throw out sympathy like spare coins into a cup.

I have come to hate this meaning that lurks behind the word ‘homeless.’ Yet, these two simple syllables have infiltrated my conversations and my paragraphs, a semantic necessity that causes me to reduce 6,000 unique individuals to a collective unsheltered entity.

‘Homeless’ when breathed into conversation among polite company often elicits a similar response, most like the one people reserve for babies and puppies. Creatures devoid of highly individual personalities and entirely dependent on the kindness of wiser, sophisticated humans for sustenance and protection.

At a recent Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting, activist Cheryl Barnes bristled at the term “chronically homeless.” Noting her own history of homelessness, Barnes resented the label as too clinical, too hopeless. This term may power policy and aid advocacy, but it does little to alter the anonymity and powerlessness of the individuals to whom it applies.

This hate for ‘homeless’ with its gray–blanketed innuendos complicated my editorial internship. I have probed my articles and actions for pity like a doctor pressing for tumors beneath the flesh. I know there were moments when I pitied and moments when I lost hope. Moments when I wanted to ban these people and the narrow jail of a word they were pushed into from my otherwise uncomplicated existence.

Still, for now, a continued dependence on ‘homeless’ is necessary, if only because no other term exists. It is not within a journalist’s power to redefine. That task lies in the community itself, both those who are domiciled and those who are not.

For me, the word will remain deep and dark; full of a shame and a tinge of guilt and a quiet desperation and a bitter slap across the face of society. My parting wish for Street Sense readers is that my reporting has brought a fuller understanding of ‘homeless’ and a challenge to the dominant framework in which this issue is enclosed.

I didn’t want to write this column. I didn’t want to acknowledge my own shortcomings or, worse, the shortcomings of words. As an activist and a journalist, I see a world whose justice is shaped and secured by words. Our language is powerful, rich, and wide. Its failure here scares me. In this, there is perhaps the only nuance where ‘homeless’ succeeds – it makes me uncomfortable.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From the Director's Desk: Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

by Laura Thompson Osuri

Wednesday, June 4 was my first official day in the Street Sense office after having a baby 10 weeks ago. While I and my baby boy, Isaac, had stopped by several times during my maternity leave, this was my first time there without him, and this was my first time since he was born that I was committed to focusing my day’s energy on work, not taking care of a baby.

I was not happy the morning of June 4. I cried as I left Isaac with my mother–in–law. I knew Isaac would be alright as he was in good hands but I was not sure if I would be alright. I have grown quite attached to this little man since he arrived in my life on March 26, and was not ready to leave him all day. Several weeks before June 4, I had already started working on Street Sense stuff from home and had gotten quite comfortable with checking e–mails and making a few phone calls while he was napping. Being in the office all day was quite a different story.

But when I got in the office there were immediately several other things to think about: planning for the fundraiser, paying bills, checking in on grants, organizing intern projects and a variety of other tasks. And it was actually nice to be around all the craziness of the office and see all the vendors again. And surprisingly, I fell right back into my multi–tasking Street Sense routine, and I found myself working just like I did before March 26, as if things had not change at all in my life.

But things have definitely changed. And I knew they would but I did not realize by how much. Before having Isaac, I thought that after 10 weeks of maternity leave I would be itching to go back to Street Sense and continue being a productive member of the workforce. But honestly, I don’t feel that way at all. Instead I have gained a new–found respect and envy for stay–at–home moms.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to abandon Street Sense. I am still fully committed to it and its growth and success. But now after nearly five years of giving my all to Street Sense, I have something else more important to watch grow and succeed.

So I am not really sure where I am going with this editorial rambling. I was hoping the point of the editorial would be that I was dreading going back but when I did, I realized how much I missed Street Sense. But that is not the case. The case really is that I am conflicted and confused. What I thought were my ideals and priorities have been turned on their heads, and where I used to be notoriously strong and decisive, I am now weepy mess when I think about the future.

I want to put all my energy into making Isaac happy and healthy but at the same time I feel obligated to Street Sense and all that I have helped to create. So I guess I just have to figure out that balance, as I am sure millions of working moms before me have. Who knew being a mom and the executive director of Street Sense would be so confusing?