Dee Clark never expected to have a story of homelessness to tell. She was a wife and a mother. She and her husband had always been able to provide for themselves and their four children. Dee worked full time at United Airlines; her husband had income from a disability benefit. They had a house, food, clothes, and enough left over to support a stable, happy life.
But the Clarks rented their house and, like more than half of Americans, lived paycheck to paycheck. When the landlord decided to sell his property, Dee and her family were given 30 days to find a new place to live. Thirty days to pack up everything and find and secure new housing, hopefully not too far from the kids’ schools. Thirty days to come up with enough cash to cover rental applications and credit checks, security and pet deposits, and the first and last months' rent.
“We had no savings,” says Dee. “The question was: Would we be ready? And the answer was: No.”
When the 30 days were up, the family faced eviction. Some suggested they split up, to make it easier to get into shelters. Eventually, they decamped to a relative’s unfinished apartment, one gutted room with no running water or heat. Because she worked full time, she was not available to make the 4 p.m. line up that many shelters require.
It was exhausting, and Dee’s performance at work suffered because she was often late.
“It was around that time that we started to feel afraid,” says Dee. “We started to feel destitute. We started to feel homeless."
“Homelessness is hurtful. It’s painful. It’s stressful, and it’s humbling,” she continues. “But it was not a judgment on our responsibility as parents. It just happened.”
Through her manager at work, Dee and her family were connected to the United Airlines Employee Relief Fund, which provided money to help cover rent and deposits. Dee gratefully recalls the day her co-workers showed up with heaps of prepared food and clean clothing. Gradually, the family transitioned back to a life more like the one they had known. “We were blessed,” says Dee. “We got out from under it.”
Motivated by the experience, Dee enrolled in The Women’s College at the University of Denver and graduated in June of 2016. By then, she had joined The Denver Foundation’s Nonprofit Internship Program. There, through a presentation about the Foundation’s Close to Home homelessness awareness campaign, she heard from others whose experiences were familiar.
“Up until then, I never really thought my story was valid,” she says. “I had this mindset that I was never really homeless until reading that homelessness means not having a safe place to call home. There was a shift in my mindset.”
Now, as a member of the Close to Home Storytellers Network, Dee tells about the experiences she never expected to have. She and her fellow Storytellers speak to groups in community centers, libraries, and places of faith and service. They show up to early morning coffee groups, afternoon committee meetings, community dinners, and other places people gather to learn about issues and work towards solutions.
“Sharing your story can lead to a change of awareness for people who don’t know how [homelessness] can happen to other people,” says Dee. “Storytelling is validating for people going through homelessness, too.”
The Storytellers Network has become a pillar of Close to Home, a five-year effort to build public will and galvanize action around homelessness. Storytellers are paid as professionals, and each receives coaching and mentor support to develop their presentations. They help move toward the pivotal goal of helping residents who have experienced homelessness view themselves and be viewed by others, as valuable members of our community.
"There's nothing more convincing than the experience of someone else."
The nearly 20 Storytellers include George Seals, who spent decades in and out of shelters. He now leads George’s Kids, an advocacy and outreach effort on the Auraria Campus. There’s Lisa Marie Gulbenkian-Fertman, a former business leader who lost a fortune to an eating disorder and an addiction. Today Lisa Marie runs a community center in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
There’s Marsha, whose family faced housing insecurity after her son was injured in an automobile accident. He had been hurt by a drunk driver, and his injuries led to expensive treatment and mounting bills. When it got to be too much, Marsha and her family sought help from Warren Village, which helps families get back on the feet after serious economic setbacks.
“It was very motivating to hear my story—myself,” says Marsha. “As people who have experienced being homeless, we’re helping people understand, ‘We’re all people. This is serious. This is livelihood. We should have some form of understanding.’”
As the experiences of the Storytellers illustrate, losing a home can happen to anyone, especially those who live close to the economic edge. For many, an unexpected change in circumstances -- job loss, unemployment, low wages, accidents, illness, divorce, the death of a family member -- can strain resources that are already limited.
The Storytellers help to humanize a phenomenon that is both increasingly common and somewhat invisible. Most families and individuals without a stable, safe place to live seek temporary refuge in short-stay motels, transitional housing or shelters, or even in their cars, out of sight of mainstream view.
Over the past decade, the number of children experiencing homelessness across Metro Denver has increased by 300 percent. Skyrocketing housing costs have intensified the risk of displacement for many vulnerable people, including seniors, women, and youth.
“The Storytellers are credible, powerful messengers, and we find that people are eager to learn more about the circumstances that led them to lose their housing, and what it took for them to move back to safe, stable housing,” says Julie Patiño, who leads the Close to Home Campaign as The Denver Foundation’s director of Basic Human Needs. “We’ve learned that many people have limited information and misperceptions about homelessness: Who it happens to, where it happens, and why. Nearly half of those homeless across the seven-county region are families."
“Our goal with the Storytellers Network is to create awareness that leads to changes in those perceptions," Patiño continues, "and that moves people to speak up and take actions that make a difference."
These actions may include volunteering at local shelters or food banks, donating cash or clothing to local organizations that serve the homeless population, learning and speaking about issues to elected officials and policymakers, or simply taking the time to stop and listen to people they might not otherwise notice.
Many of the Storytellers describe the process as healing, motivating, and empowering. In the Storytellers Network, they feel part of a fellowship with others who have faced--and overcome-- very difficult times in life. “I needed to tell my story,” says Lisa Marie. “It helps to just talk about it. It helps to know other people have been through the same thing.”
Now many years clear of her own experience with homelessness, solidly on her feet and committed to helping others, Dee agrees.
“Telling stories helps people see that homelessness has many faces,” she says. “There’s nothing more convincing than the experience of someone else.”
To learn more about, or to book a speaker from The Storytellers Network, visit closetohome.org. The website contains many ideas for how you can take action to end homelessness, starting with taking an online pledge.
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