during the summer of 2012, I talked w/ 180+ people re: the importance & costliness of housing

(This slightly revised essay was written on July 19, 2012. I think its message is still relevant.)

When you think of “home” what do you think of?  What memories pop into your mind?

These are two of the questions I’ve been asking people over the past couple of months to document how folks talk about the meaning of ‘home.”

I also ask them for their reactions to the plight of low-wage workers as they struggle to afford housing and to the increase in homelessness over the past 30 years.

Talk About Home demonstrates that the electorate is ready to rally behind changes to housing policy and call for an end to homelessness.

The people I interview may not use words like “infrastructure bonds” or “tax credits.”  They have no clue what the acronyms “ROI” and “FHPAP” stand for.

But they have an intimate understanding of the state we are in.  They are struggling to pay for their housing or they know someone who does.  They volunteer at a homeless shelter, or they’ve stayed in one.

Perhaps I should back up and tell you a bit more about the nuts and bolts of this project.

Two or three times a week I head out for an afternoon or evening to some public place and panhandle for videotaped interviews.  I hold a sign reading “Talk About Home video project … got 2 minutes?” with a small video camera and large tripod at my side.

Invariably, I get a batch of people to walk up to me and ask “What are you up to?” or to simply say “I’ve got 2 minutes.”

Without providing prep time or scripting, I tell them that I am interviewing people about the meaning of home.  Then, I turn on the camera.

To date, I’ve interviewed 105 people.  (That summer, I eventually talked to over 180 people.)

The interviews are beautiful, empowering, and heart-wrenching.

The beauty is in listening to people talk about their memories of home.  Food and family come up a lot.  As does security and “the place I can be who I want to be.”  And, sometimes I listen for several minutes as people talk about such things as making cookies with mom, neighborhood gatherings over soda or pop (depending on where you are from), or the painting one man discovered in his basement.

Most of the time, when people talk about home, they smile.  They get quite animated.  They escape to a different world.

Then comes the empowering and heart-wrenching part.  When told that it takes over two minimum wage jobs to afford an apartment in their community, the interviewees don’t bat an eye.  One asked, “Are you sure it’s just two?”  Some talk about their current struggle to afford housing, others about how extra hours they work should really be devoted to family, but they have no choice.

I’d say that a good 80% of the interviewees are quite comfortable talking about systemic problems.  Joe is an example.  He uses language that represents  many of the interviewees:

“I know when I grew up my father worked and my mother, you know, she worked at home but she didn’t have an actual income.  And then society changed to the point where, well, now mom and dad both have to work, and now it’s gone to a point where mom and dad both have to work, and they still have trouble meeting expenses.   So, society has changed somehow.”

Things get really serious when I share that homelessness has quadrupled in Minnesota in the past 20 years.  One young woman indicated that as a kid she was proud to live in a state that didn’t have much homelessness.  She was really troubled to hear that things had gotten so bad.

A foster care mom noted “Yep.  I can talk about that too.”  Not only did she personally struggle to maintain her housing, three of the four children she was taking care of had been homeless with their mom before they ended up with her.  One child refused to eat baloney because she ate it so much when she was homeless.  The same child talked about living in abandoned buildings or under a bridge in a car with her family.

At least fifteen of my interviewees were or had been homeless at one time.  I’d guess about an equal number knew someone who’d been homeless.

In other words, for many people, affordable housing and homelessness are not abstract concepts.  They understand. 

One interviewee, Tim noted: “Nobody would come out and say they want people to be homeless … but it all depends on whether they are willing to do anything about it.” (So right!)

[Talk About Home was one of the most moving and meaningful projects I’ve ever worked on. While I would have preferred not to be unemployed during the experience, it was my way to stay relevant to the affordable housing/end-to-homelessness community until I landed my next job. It was demonstrated that “real people” can communicate the need for systemic change in words and stories that make sense to the general populace. This is a lesson we should heed today]

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