Damien Haussling arrived
about a year and a half ago. He's originally from the Washington, D.C. metro area but he came here from the Maryland Department of Corrections; he was paroled in this state due to a charge in Montgomery County and the difficulty of transferring cases to another state's jurisdiction, such as Virginia, where he has family members. So coming to Baltimore was a quicker route to re-entering society. Haussling realizes this explanation is a little wonky, so he jumps back about a decade to a time when he was a married high school teacher working on his Ph.D. in statistics. And then his life abruptly changed.
"My wife and mother-in-law were killed by a drunk driver," Haussling says during a phone interview. "And during the time after that, when I was grieving, I was arrested for something I didn't do, and by the time the criminal offenses were dropped, I was homeless. And I didn't handle that very well. I turned to shoplifting to survive. And for 10 years or so I was doing that."
The former high school teacher realizes he's not the typical person that comes to mind when thinking about a homeless person. "I have been fortunate to have some education and all that good stuff," he continues. "A lot of time when people meet me and they don't know [my story] ahead of time, they are usually completely shocked that I have a direct homeless experience."
The thing is, there is no typical road that leads to homelessness, despite the presumed stereotype of the panhandler looking for enough coin to score the next drink or fix. Haussling is a member of Baltimore's Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau, an organization that understands the power of story to short-circuit those stereotypes. The National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., created this homeless education and empowerment organization in 1996. The Baltimore chapter started in August 2010 through a collaboration of the community service providers St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore's Beans & Bread program, the Health Care for the Homeless, Project PLASE, and Fusion Partnerships. The bureau obtains speaking engagements for its members who are currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. They speak to students at schools and universities, at places of worship, to community organizations, and, recently, to members of Baltimore's City Council. This week, the Bureau presents
I Am: A Night of Monologues
, its second quasi-theatrical program and fundraiser. All proceeds benefit the bureau and the Youth Empowered Society (YES), a new drop-in center for at-risk and homeless youth.
"I think a lot of people see homeless people as lazy or assume that it's all their fault that they're homeless, that people are only homeless because they made poor choices," says Vanessa Borotz, an AmeriCorps VISTA coordinator of Baltimore's Speakers' Bureau. "Our mission is to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of homelessness, and our Speakers' Bureau is led by people who have experienced homelessness. We recognize that there's a lot of bigger structural issues going on [that contribute to homelessness]-poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of adequate healthcare, lack of living wages for everybody."
To address homelessness, it is necessary to place it within a larger socioeconomic context. While the myths of the American dream celebrate rags-to-riches achievements as triumphs of rugged individualism, the flipside to that mindset is that the individual is also solely responsible for whatever dire situation in which he might find himself. Make no mistake: We are responsible for our actions, and the Speakers' Bureau members interviewed for this article all acknowledged that, yes, there are people living on the streets who shun efforts to reintegrate into society. But just because a few people do that doesn't mean every man, woman, and child who experiences homelessness behaves the same way.
"Sometimes I like to say I'm not so much homeless because that term is kind of a relative one," says Speakers' Bureau member Brandon, who prefers not to use his last name for this story. Formerly homeless, he currently lives in transitional residence At Jacob's Well. He worked in construction most of his life, a skilled job that all but disappeared for him during the real estate crash of 2008. "I might be house-less but I've been homeless my entire life because I ain't ever owned anywhere I lived. And when I speak, lately I like to remind people, look at Hurricane Sandy, look at the [Oklahoma] tornados. Those people are now homeless too. Do you look at them with the same disparaging eye?"
The bureau held its first benefit evening of monologues last summer, and the members took their inspiration for it from a TED talk. "[Nigerian-born, Maryland-based author] Chimamanda Adichie had a talk about the danger of a single story," Haussling says, "meaning she's originally from Nigeria and she says they have one general view about what it means to be an American, which is not necessarily true, and we, of course, may have a certain view of what it means to be an African. And so we took that idea to develop it into what it means to be someone who has direct experience with homelessness."
For this year's event, Borotz says the members took their inspiration from civil and human rights struggles of the past. "Somebody had suggested the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, and people were interested in that idea of validating their humanity through sharing their personal stories," she says, and the program is "a different format than what we usually do. Usually [speakers] have 15 minutes to share their story and we talk more broadly about homelessness. This is different. It's more of a presentation, almost more theatrical. It's rehearsed, and speakers only have five minutes to share some aspect of their life."
Speakers for the event started writing, preparing, and rehearsing about six weeks ago, but they got a little sidetracked when they had the chance to speak to members of the City Council in June. "We did a performance with about half of City Council that was very well-received," says Speakers' Bureau member Bonnie Lane. She is formerly homeless and has been in her own place for about three years now. Like Brandon and Haussling, she is also on the editorial board of the
Word on the Street
newspaper, and she's going to write about the City Council encounter in an upcoming issue. "We opened up a channel of communication with City Hall that we haven't previously had. We're the only Speakers' Bureau in the nation that has had any type of meeting like that."
The pride in that statement is unmistakable and well-earned, and is a reminder of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau's two functions. It's an organization educating its audiences about an American economic system that has enough holes in it that homelessness can happen to anybody. And it's an opportunity to give the people who've been there an authorial agency in their own struggle.
"Once I had the opportunity to speak, I found that it may be one of the reasons why I'm still here," Brandon says. "I've been in some heavy situations being out there in the streets for awhile, but I'm still blessed and I'm here and I will continue to try to let people know that they need to look a different way at people. Everybody needs some kind of help at one time or another. You can't lump everybody into a group. There might be a few bad apples anywhere-just look at the police department. But that's a whole other subject."
For more information visit