Wednesday 3 June 2015

Word on the Street: homeless people tell their stories

“I speak several languages”, 
“I was a heroin addict”,
“I feel reborn”,
“I was sent to prison at 17”,
“I went to university”…

I had asked the eight people sitting around the table to share a piece of interesting information about themselves – something that people walking by them on the street wouldn’t know. 

They were five men and three women – all homeless - with very diverse life experiences and backgrounds, and amazing stories to tell. Like most homeless persons I had worked with before, many had a “normal”, even promising life before something sent them off course: the death of a loved one, an accident or illness, a drug or alcohol habit, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job. 

They had come to the office of Poached Creative, a social enterprise communication agency in Hackney, London, to learn how to tell their own stories, so that they could publish them in the Pavement, a free print and online magazine packed with news, stories, cartoons and useful information for homeless readers. 

During the workshop, we discussed the power of stories, what to share and what to leave out, storytelling tools and what makes a good story. We talked about structure and style – using your own voice, painting pictures, using details and showing instead of telling.  Instead of covering their whole life, we decided to focus on one telling event that said something bigger, on people they have met, places they have been, dreams and struggles.

I used various prompts to help them think about their lives, including sharing an interesting fact about themselves. I got the idea watching a moving video featuring homeless people in Orlando, Florida, telling their “cardboard stories.”

I haven’t seen their final stories yet, but previous contributors to the Pavement wrote about their life “before” or the event that lead them to become homeless. One wrote about how miserable it is to be ill on the streets, where you cannot get warm and the police moves you all the time; others described with humour a night in a hostel or a meal in a soup kitchen.

The Storytelling workshop is part of the Pavement’s Word on the Street project aimed to help homeless people to contribute as fully as possible to the magazine.  For three months, they are given training in everything from interviewing and photojournalism to storytelling and computer skills, lead by professional journalists. The project is managed by Poached Creative, a fantastic social enterprise training and working with disadvantaged people on various creative communication projects.  

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