By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, School of Theology and Ministry Faith & Family Homelessness Project

Often, when we talk about homelessness, we talk numbers. Numbers convey information powerfully and provoke instant (hopefully productive) outrage. Take this little taste of regional homelessness by the numbers: in January of this year, at least 3,772 people were living without shelter in King County; last school year, Washington state school districts identified 32,494 Washington students as homeless; and, as of this March, over 800 families were homeless in King County – on a waitlist for housing while living in emergency shelters or in places not meant for human habitation.

Affordable Housing in King CountyWhen we talk about the affordable housing crisis in our region, we consider the almost 300,000 households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing and the sad reality that a single parent would have to make over $27/hour in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in King County.

These numbers pack a punch. (The idea that over 30,000 children are homeless in our state is particularly distressing; more so when we consider research on the lasting effects of childhood trauma.) And yet, numbers don’t give us a face, a human to connect to. People experiencing homelessness might easily remain “the homeless” in our minds if we approach them exclusively through statistics and infographics. For those of us who have never experienced homelessness, they’re a group of people whose lives can seem remote and profoundly different from our own.

And data won’t tell us their stories. Numbers can’t force us to recognize and honor the human dignity of the grizzled guy with the cardboard sign on the side of the road or consider the day-to-day struggles of a single mother and daughter living in their car.

Lynie and Dinkus

Lynie and Dinkus sharing a moment of friendship on the bench by the canal. Photo Credit: Rex Hohlbein, Facing Homelessness

Our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness have been increasingly and systematically devalued and dehumanized in our society (see also), and, while data paints a picture, it can’t rebuild our lost human connection.

For that, we need stories.

As Paige McAdams wrote recently in a blog post for Firesteel, stories are bridges. They bridge the gaps between us – our real and perceived differences, but also our gaps in awareness and empathy. Storytelling allows all of us to enter into the reality of another person or group of people, if only for a moment. As we listen to or read about the personal experiences of others, our humanity recognizes the humanity of the tellers, and giving voice to a story can lend both the storyteller and her listeners incredible strength and agency. As Franklin Gilliard, a formerly homeless Tacoma husband and father, recently said at a community event celebrating the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project, “Giving people my story makes them stronger. They know that people can relate to them, and people are not always looking down.” Storytelling makes us feel closer to one another and gives us purpose.

Gilliards

Sherry and Franklin Gilliard. Photo: StoryCorps

Many of us who are advocates have felt this particularly strongly in the last few months. Powerful personal stories of experiences with homelessness have been in the air quite literally – streaming and playing on the airwaves of KUOW. It’s been a season of stories, first with The Moth’s “Home: Lost and Found” showcase in April, and more recently, at community events at the WA State Conference on Ending Homelessness in Tacoma and at the Gates Foundation celebrating the incredible StoryCorps project, “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness.

And stories like those of the participants in the StoryCorps and The Moth projects not only fill our hearts, they serve as powerful tools for advocacy. When you can share with a city council person or a legislator the story and challenges of someone who has experienced homelessness in their city or district, you give the startling data and statistics they already know a face. You humanize the issue(s) and begin to bridge those gaps.

Firesteel now has a website that puts this power at our fingertips. At firesteelwa.org/storycorps, advocates can access dozens of oral interviews recorded through the the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” Project. Some have been edited down to 2 or 3 minutes, others exist only in their full 40-minute form. All can be accessed and used upon request and searched for by subject, key words, and by legislative district. Visit the site to learn more and to explore this incredible advocacy tool.

When we tell and listen to stories, we give faces to the numbers, and we come to find that people aren’t “the homeless” – they’re just people without homes. People who, like us, have a fundamental right to housing.

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