Jessie Pedro believes it is essential to have programs for the homeless to “help them advocate for themselves.”
Pedro was the keynote speaker at the 13th annual Homeless Women’s Forum held last week. This year’s theme, “Hand in Hand,” sought to rally citizens together in efforts to diminish homelessness.
The luncheon was held at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle and among the attendees were homeless and formerly homeless women.
The program showcased Pedro and other women who helped write the new poetry anthology called Beloved Community: The Sisterhood of Homeless Women in Poetry.
“This is some of the best poetry that I have ever read,” said Claudio Mauro of Whit Press, explaining why she helped publish what is now a nationally distributed book.
Pedro, who is featured in the book, said she can never forget her first night being homeless, staying at a bar until closing time, then riding the bus up and down until morning. “Being homeless is a job, using my survivor skills,” she wrote in her poem “End Homelessness.”
During her two years on the streets, Pedro turned in 25 applications for subsidized housing before finally getting approved. She doesn’t regret the experience, she says, because it taught her how to be more compassionate. Today she plans to leave her job at Mary’s Place, a day shelter for women, to become a motivational speaker to help homeless women.
Volunteers from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness estimate that there are more than 7,839 people without homes in King County. The count was taken on the night of Jan. 25, during the coalition’s annual One Night Count program. At least 2,159 of these people had no shelter.
Pedro believes that the new condos being built downtown add to the homeless problem. The high-end condos are replacing low-income housing, and families are getting evicted. She believes that the entire community should come together to find solutions, adding that the “homeless and formerly homeless people are the experts in this area.”
Janice Connelly, who has been homeless, also believes Seattle’s homeless problem is due to a lack of affordable housing. She believes there is “not enough dialogue with the homeless.”
Ann Sakaguchi from Operation Nightwatch helps find shelter for women on a nightly basis. She said that before April 2006 there was an average of five women every night who came for help. Ever since then, the shelters have not been able to meet the capacity and the number has grown to an average of 60 women per night, said Sakaguchi.
Kimberly Harris became homeless after she was released from jail. She lost her car and apartment and had no place to go except for a halfway house. Even then, two days out of the week, she would have to sleep out on the streets. She says she didn’t go to her family because of pride, but admits, “If it wasn’t for Mary’s Place... man, I’d be in a pretty bad situation.”
Some homeless women write poetry because it’s a way to cope, a way to feel real. “Without a home, which is a symbol of self, these women have created a self on paper,” writes renowned feminist author Gloria Steinem of the book Beloved Community. Her comments are printed on the WHEEL Platform, copies of which were distributed at the luncheon.
All proceeds from the book go directly to the Women’s Housing, Equity and Enhancement League. “You buy a book and you give women a home,” said Mauro. She also plans to make sure copies are given to every elected official in Washington state as well as the entire U.S. Congress.
Other topics during the forum included the possible displacement of social-service programs in the near future. Programs like the Church of Mary Magdalene, or Mary’s Place, the Compass Center, First Church Men’s Shelter, SHARE’s Safe Haven Shelter, Hammond House, The Recovery Café, Noel House and Rose of Lima House may be temporarily or permanently relocated.
Another issue was the planned Homeless Place of Remembrance, a public space for remembering homeless people who have died. According to WHEEL, in the past seven years, more than 240 homeless people have died outside or by violence in King County. Last year 59 homeless people died and this year 35 have died so far.
Ruanda Morrison, another poet and formerly homeless woman, believes “this problem didn’t happen overnight (and) it’s not going to disappear overnight.”
JULIA L. RICE is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.