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'Facing Homelessness' project gives a voice to the invisible

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - 11:54 am

A University of Saint Francis student sleeps in her car. A teenager learns that not everyone is used to living without heat and electricity.

They are among the local stories told in a project called Facing Homelessness organized by Lutheran Social Services, IPFW, University of Saint Francis, Mission Church, Community Action of Northeast Indiana, Michael MacLeod Studios and Genesis Outreach.

The national project was developed by JR Jamison and Kelsey Timmerman. The idea is through the collaboration of writers, artists and actors a platform is provided to tell the stories of the homeless in communities across the country, town by town. By using the project toolkit, organizers, writers, actors and artists bring awareness to the public, providing a catalyst for change.

The project here in Fort Wayne is focusing on 18 stories and artwork that will go into a book. At 5:30 p.m. April 18, the Allen County Public Library will host an event in which actors will read the stories aloud and the artwork will be displayed for the public to view. It will include information about homelessness, volunteer opportunities and ways the community can donate money to help make a change.

Bethany Pruitt, financial literacy coordinator at Lutheran Social Services, and Heidi Kaufman, case manager for LSS, said they hope by reaching out to the public this way that individuals, teachers, or businesses will step forward with fresh solutions for the homeless.

Not all the stories are about the homeless. A few are about community members who have already reached out to help these people. They include a man who trains people to work on bicycles and a woman who provides hot meals for the homeless.

The local project reached out to writers throughout the community, including Jennifer Boen, spokeswoman for SCAN, and a former full-time reporter for The News-Sentinel.

Boen said when she agreed to do the project she imagined her subject would be someone living under a bridge somewhere. In reality she interviewed a woman who grew up in a single-parent household. A house fire killed her father and destroyed their home and belongings. Her mother had health issues and couldn't work full time, so having the lights and heat turned off was a regular occurrence. They scraped by and the family joined a very supportive church. She was relatively happy until she reached high school. Then she discovered not everyone lived the way she did. She became very angry with her mother and nearly dropped out of school. A gifted musician, she turned to her music as she turned away from her family, school and church.

But the ladies at church who knew her came to every one of her public performances and she noticed. Eventually, through the example these women set, she came to realize she wanted to succeed in life. She now has two associates degrees and is going back to school for a bachelor degree in teaching. She holds a full-time job and recently purchased her own home. She and her mother have salvaged their relationship and her mother has gone back to school to get a degree as well.

Boen said she came away from the story thinking how important it is for young people and adults who are caught in the cycle of poverty to have mentors around them to encourage and support them by example.

Pruitt said many of the people in the book are not living on the street. Some are living in shelters, others “couch surf,” moving from one friend's or relative's couch to the next. One of their subjects is a Saint Francis student who combines sleeping in her car and couch surfing to be able to afford her education. Still other subjects, like Boen's, have moved on to a better life.

The majority of the artwork in the book was shot by Saint Francis photography students. The students had to come up with creative ways to show their subject's living situation without actually showing the person.