Memory in Context: Personal Narrative and Social Change in the Forgotten Fight Oral History Project

Introduction

Homelessness is a concept that many people choose to avoid thinking about in their day to day lives. It is uncomfortable to equate yourself to the person standing on the street corner that you pass every morning on the way to work. Thoughts like “oh that could never happen to me” and “the guy must be homeless because…” often are the first thoughts that cross peoples’ minds when they encounter a homeless person. But what many people do not realize, or choose not to think about is that 14.8% of people live at or below the poverty line here in America. [1]  Many more than that struggle every day to make ends meet, and many are thrust into poverty or homelessness due to circumstances beyond their control such as a family tragedy, job loss, medical conditions, legal fees, and divorce.[2] Because of this high poverty rate, many Americans are only one crisis and paycheck away from being homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in January of 2013, 610,042 people in the United States were homeless on any given night.[3] However, statistics on the homeless population can be difficult to interpret and nail down as the average number of people who are homeless, including veterans, fluctuates on a daily basis.[4]  Many people shift in and out of homelessness because sometimes they will have enough money for a cheap hotel stay, have a friend to stay with, take up residence in a local shelter, or are picked up by law enforcement and are spending the night in jail.

 

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that approximately 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans. Further, it is estimated that 1.4 million veterans are perpetually on the verge of homelessness “due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.”[5] These numbers are astounding to many Americans, asking why there are not better services to help these people. But at the same time, many of these same people make assumptions about the homeless population and their reasons for being homeless that are directly contradictory to previous statements about wanting to help.[6] The homelessness statistics are even more complex because they do not necessarily include people who have no legal residence but are hopping between friends and family members. There are also many people who do not want to be found and counted, and thus homelessness numbers tend underestimate the reality of the problem. Due to the inadequacy of statistics and surveys, it can be difficult to really address the problem of homelessness from a quantitative point of view without assessing the qualitative factors such as cause and story behind the individual. Oral histories of homeless veterans can offer a remedy to the problem of inadequate statistics and the assumptions many people have about the homeless and veterans.

 

The Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project, conducted by Daniel Kerr, worked to identify key factors in the growth and perpetuation of homelessness in the city by talking directly to those impacted- the street homeless. After talking with service-providers in the area, Kerr realized that the only way to truly assess the problem of homelessness was to talk to those who were actually homeless to find out what barriers they faced and have them assist in finding the solution to the homeless problem. Kerr began conducting an oral history project that looked at the personal histories and ideologies of the homeless in Cleveland. He found that “nearly all participants combined their experiences with a larger political and structural explanation of the causes of homelessness,”[7] showing that many of the societal stereotypes about the causes of homelessness are false. The gentrification of neighborhoods was one of the overarching themes Kerr found throughout his interviews. When real estate developers became concerned with revitalizing poor areas of the city, they tore down “single room occupancy hotels, better known as flop houses,”[8] leaving many people with no where to go, as they could no longer afford to live in their old neighborhood. Subsequently, the government effectively made the act of homelessness illegal through the development of vagrancy and loitering laws. Those who lost their inexpensive housing because of the revitalization projects essentially were stuck living illegally with nowhere else to go. Once they were arrested for crimes such as loitering and sleeping in public, regaining housing became nearly impossible because having any sort of criminal record creates barriers when trying to get a job that will allow one to afford housing.[9] The Cleveland Oral History Project goes beyond statistics to broaden the scope of what people consider to be history by adding a new set of voices to the record. In addition, his project “emboldened homeless people to act and become agents for social change.”[10]

 

Researchers have been working to create a dialogue with and around the street homeless population to change these stereotypes and work for change.[11] Kerr’s oral history project was broadcast on the radio and in a public square to encourage the homeless population to talk about their struggles and unite to be a force for social change and reform.[12]  The University of North Carolina in Charlotte, created a community based learning class to help dispel stereotypes associated with the homeless while encouraging a dialogue to foster connections between the college  and the local homeless population in order to create a civically minded community that works for social reform.[13] Jim Hubbard published a series of photos of the homeless called American Refugees to encourage people to examine the photos and find the similarities between themselves and the homeless. [14] In keeping with these efforts, the Forgotten Fight Oral History Project aims to be a platform for a marginalized group of people to be able to add to the conversations around the intersection of the homeless and veteran population while providing depth and reality to the homeless veteran statistics.

 

The stories of the Forgotten Fight Oral History Project show that while different in age, gender, race, and experience, the participants each shared similar sentiments on their homelessness journey that represent a significant commonalties of experience between all ten of the participants. The common threads shared by the interviewees range in complexity from their reasons for joining the military, the sense of masculinity and belonging developed through military service, difficulties asking for help, giving back to their community, and a sense of pride in their journey and their families. During their struggles with homelessness, interviewees remembered extensive experiences of disappointment and let down that caused them to be weary of seeking help and losing any sense of security and stability they had found in their homeless situation. Entering the military as young individuals desiring and being promised job stability and an escape from unstable economic conditions, many of the participants relied on the structured support system of the military to teach them critical life skills and provide them with a foundation to grow as a civilian member of society. While the military did provide them with these things, their service only granted them a temporary reprieve from the struggles in life before entering the military and in their words, did not cause their struggles with homelessness. By using the dialogue from oral histories and the common themes expressed, society can begin to take a different approach at potential opportunities for change. Oral histories, such as these, prove to be a valuable way to learn about the intricacies of people’s lives and how they fit into a population identity. Once the nuances of that population identity become clear, society can begin to address the potential for specialized and specific population oriented change.

 

[1] “Poverty: 2014 Highlights,” United States Census Bureau. 15 Sept, 2015. Accessed 1 April, 2016,  https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview.

[2] Wasserman, Jason. At Home on the Street: People, Poverty, and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010. Print.

[3] Henry, Meghan and Alvaro Cortes and Sean Morris. The 2013 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress: Part 1 Point in Time Estimates of Homelessness (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: 2013).

 

[4] Henry, Meghan and Alvaro Cortes and Sean Morris. The 2013 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress: Part 1 Point in Time Estimates of Homelessness (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: 2013).

[5] National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Background and Statistics. Accessed 28 December, 2015 http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics.

[6] Buch, Kim, and Susan Harden. “The Impact of a Service-Learning Project on Student Awareness of Homelessness, Civic Attitudes, and Stereotypes toward the Homeless.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 15, no. 3 (2011).

[7] Kerr, “‘We Know What the Problem Is,’” 34.

[8] Kerr, “‘We Know What the Problem Is,’” 38.

[9]Ibid., 34-40.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Buch, “The Impact of a Service-Learning Project.” And Kerr, We Know What the Problem Is.”

[12] Kerr, “‘We Know What the Problem Is,’” 27-45.

[13] Buch, Kim, and Susan Harden. “The Impact of a Service-Learning Project on Student Awareness of Homelessness, Civic Attitudes, and Stereotypes toward the Homeless.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 15, no. 3 (2011): 45–61.

[14] Hubbard, Jim, and Jonathan Kozol. American Refugees. Illustrated edition edition. Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Pr, 1991.