What’s it like to live on the streets? To be really down and out with nowhere to go? Hopefully, most of us will never know. But before we can solve the problem of poverty and homelessness, we need to understand how people get to that point, and how they are sometimes able to get out.
That’s why journalist Ann Walton Sieber (a former OutSmart editor) and award-winning photographer Ben Tecumseh DeSoto created the Understanding Poverty Project, documenting in text and photos the lives of Houston’s homeless.
“We did a show at DiverseWorks in 2008,” Sieber says. “It was supposed to open when Ike hit, so it was delayed. But when people finally came out and saw it, they responded.”
But Sieber and DeSoto didn’t want to just have an art show. They wanted people to actually meet those whose stories they told.
“Being able to look a homeless person in the eye and see them as a real person and not turn away,” she says, “is what I hope people will take away from this new Sharing Our Stories panel.”
One of Sieber’s stories is about Scot More, a man who lost his relationship, his house, his job, and was HIV-positive.
She recorded More’s story for the project: “I spent my 40th birthday eating hot dogs alone. I was at Lord of the Streets [in Midtown], and I remember sitting there thinking, ‘My life is over.’ You know? I’m 40, I have nothing, I’m in a homeless shelter, I have no job, no money, and these hot dogs suck. And it’s my birthday. You know, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ Talk about depressing!”
But More found help, and today he is head of community outreach at the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, which is the umbrella organization for all of the homeless agencies in the city. For the upcoming Understanding Poverty event, Sharing Our Stories, More will take part in a panel discussion to share his story and answer questions from the audience.
Another panel member is Joseph Benson, once a well-known chef who wound up losing both legs in a car accident. Pain medication and depression led him to a life on the streets for four years before he found help. Benson, like More, is now an advocate for the homeless and has organized a voter registration drive and pushed for health care for the homeless.
“There’s policy and politics,” Sieber says, “but when it comes right down to it, people relate to other people.” Which is why this event will include not just pictures and text, but real voices telling their tales.
While meeting these people and seeing the photos and written stories may tug at the heartstrings, Sieber hopes people will come away from Sharing Our Stories with more than feelings. Maybe they will take action.
As Sieber says, small changes can do much. But as for the big picture on homelessness in our country: “Ending it?” she muses, “I don’t know, but let’s at least cut it down.” —Marene Gustin
Understanding Poverty Project’s “Sharing Our Stories: an evening of stories from folks who have been homeless and their allies” — Tuesday, March 16, 7 p.m., Live Oak Friends Meetinghouse, 1318 W. 26th Street; and Friday, March 19, 7:30 p.m., Houston Institute for Culture, 708 Telephone Rd. For more information call 832-865-3343