I had never heard of the Human Library Project, but when I was invited to be a Human Book and share my experience with being homeless, I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that I would end up losing my voice during the afternoon because I was one of the more popular Books to be checked out by Readers.
In short, the Human Library is an event which is aimed at addressing biases and discrimination that people might feel towards different groups. “A Human Book is a person that has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group.” Examples of Human Books included: Feminist, Black Women are Scary, Muslim, Oreo, Christian Pastor and many others.
My title was “Homeless.” My chapters, which were based on very common stereotypes, included:
- Just make better decisions!
- Just a crazy alcoholic or druggie!!
- Don’t you have family you can stay with?
- Abuser of the “system”!
- You must WANT to be homeless!
The organizers gave us the option to meet with small groups or one-on-one with Readers depending on our comfort level. I am so pleased that I said I was open to either option. It gave me the opportunity to talk to so many more Readers. In each of the five 30-minute sessions, I had between two and four Readers. As I stated above, at one point, I had been talking so much that I began to lose my voice!
I also had the distinction of being the first Human Book to be checked out. I should have known right then that I wasn’t going to have much down time, if any.
To help begin each session, we were encouraged to ask the Readers why they chose our particular topic. Fortunately, I never got the “my professor told us to come” response like others did. All of my Readers seemed genuinely interested in challenging their own beliefs about the Homeless.
I purposely did not include gender in my chapter titles. I did, however, shatter that stereotype from the very beginning. I very quickly asked each Reader if they had expected to see a male when escorted to my table. For all except maybe two, the answer was a predictable “yes.” It was interesting to see the shock on their own faces as they realized they held that stereotype. From the very first time I asked that question and got their responses, I KNEW this was going to be a great afternoon of raising awareness.
There was one point in the afternoon when I had a chance to speak longer with two ladies. One was possibly about 50 years old and already involved with helping the Homeless through her church. The other was only about 19 or 20. She was so taken by what I shared that she was anxious to learn how she can help others.
I spent about 20 minutes telling my story making sure to cover all of the Chapters I had listed. Here is a VERY condensed version of my story:
I became homeless due to my depression and lack of full understanding by family. It was not a lack of poor decisions or lack of compliance with my treatment. I am one of the most compliant mental health clients you will find. I have ALWAYS taken my medication as instruction and only once did I cancel a therapy session at the last minute just because I didn’t want to go. In a sense, I accelerated the process to homelessness by seeking help for my mental health. I knew that afternoon that I checked myself into the psychiatric unit that I was simultaneously evicting myself from my sister’s home.
As for drug or alcohol use, I definitely do not have a problem there. I have no more than three or four alcoholic drinks a year and I have never smoked even a cigarette. I can barely stand to even hold an unopened pack of cigarettes!
I had immediate family that offered to let me stay with them, but it was under the condition that I either be working or looking for work. They just did not understand that I was not mentally capable of doing either at the time. I had reached the point of having panic attacks when it did come time to work.
When I did stay with other relatives during this time, I tried to work a part-time job. In the one month that I held the job, there was not one week where I made it to work all four days. Ultimately, I lost that job when I entered the hospital for the third time in a year.
So many people believe that people WANT to be on government entitlements. I was so overwhelmed by having to use my SNAP card early on. The first time I used my SNAP card I only purchased two items: a bag of chips and a drink. I remember kind of hiding the card as I slid it in the machine. I grabbed the bag as quickly as I could and made a bee-line for my car. I was so ashamed to be using ‘food stamps’ that I didn’t even make it to my car before I started crying. I had officially reached a low I never imagined.
As I followed my daily routine between the shelter, library, therapy and Transitional Housing each day, I began to understand why it is so hard for some to move back into permanent housing or even to not want to take advantage of certain services. Unfortunately, in many places, it takes a great deal of patience to navigate the various services and their requirements.
It became clear to me early on that I had become homeless for a reason. It was a time for me to focus on me and my mental health without other stressors. Sounds, strange, I know. I had no fixed home or income, yet that was part of the blessing. I knew where I was going to sleep, I knew where I was going to shower and I knew where I was going to have my meals. My basic needs were being met…without me having to stress about money, work, or even interacting with others unless absolutely necessary. I finally had the time I needed to spend in more intense therapy.
For others, it is not a blessing. Once they have a bad experience with an agency, they are highly unlikely to return. Most often, this happens with homeless shelters. A good shelter has basic rules for everyone. It’s really quite minimal in the grand scheme of things in order to be able to sleep with air conditioning or heat depending on the season. However, for some, it is just too much for a number of reasons. These people generally end up being ‘campers.’ And, once you’ve been a camper for a while, the freeness of it makes is more difficult to adjust to stable, long-term housing. For those, the best we can do is to make sure their other needs are being met.
Ultimately, I got housed because of information from my therapist and NOT because of help from either of my case managers. I did start working again and have now been in the same apartment and job for over 4.5 years.
That is my story in a nutshell. I could have given at least a two-hour talk if given the opportunity. It was such a pleasure and privilege to be able to share with so many in one afternoon.
Once the Readers were dismissed, we convened in a meeting room to decompress and give our immediate feedback to the organizers and each other. EVERY Book thoroughly enjoyed the experience and had wished we had had an opportunity to be a Reader of some Books ourselves. In the end, all the Books agreed to have their information shared with each other so that we could become Readers at our leisure.
I commend the Krannert Women in Management group for doing wonderful job in organizing such a complex program. I certainly hope to return as a Book!