I began interacting with homeless people nearly ten years ago, at first casually, until I realized that we had something in common. Like many people living on the streets, I am estranged from my family.
Every week, I go to St. Ben’s meal program on the corner of 10th and State in downtown Milwaukee. I am not a “regular volunteer,” in the sense that I don't do the important work of cooking and serving a meal for a couple hundred people. I am a listener. I sit with the guests, share a meal at a table, and hear what they have to say. In turn, they tell me amazing stories. We make a connection on a human level, meeting in a way that many homeless people don’t have otherwise. Their way of telling me this is to use a phrase common in local street lingo: “You see me.” As you will find in reading these stories, being marginalized means people feel ignored or looked down upon, not seen as human.
As we arrive at a time in America where we are asked to honor the truth of the generational trauma caused by institutional racism, I want to say this plainly: I recognize that I'm a white woman writing about people of all races, but as you read these stories, I hope you can see that I'm not saving anybody - in fact, quite the opposite. Trust me, being among these people, many of whom I can call friends, has helped me move through some tough times and emerge in a better place. They give me the great gift of acceptance. They see me in return.
I am not an expert on homelessness in any way. I have picked my way along, learning as I go, about estrangement, about homelessness, about human spirit.
These stories are not based on interviews or any type of formal arrangement. They are derived from interactions with the guests at the meal program. Because these conversations aren't recorded I do my best to the capture words I hear, and the culture of homeless people. I think of my work as perhaps embedded reporting, only I get to go home every night. In short, they are simply stories about real people who are not like me, who are important to me, who have voices and ideas, problems and solutions.
And so, I bring these voices to you.