On the twisting path of Persephone
When you begin a trip, you usually know where you’re headed. You hop in the car to drive to Yellowstone, and you can expect to eventually arrive in Yellowstone, but you have no idea what will occur before you get there. As they say, “half the fun is in the journey.” So it is when I begin a play; I have an idea where I’m headed, but we may or may not end up in Yellowstone.
Back in 2018, I decided to write a play about homelessness in Grand Forks, ND. It wasn’t the first play I would write about homelessness in America. In 1989, my B.F.A. capstone at NYU was Hotel Brats, a play about children living in old hotels in NYC that had been turned into housing for homeless families. Of course, homelessness had been an issue in New York City (and across the U.S.) dating back to the late 19th century. Jacob Riis's photo documentary
How the Other Half Lives stunned the "sheltered" in 1890. Then there were the infamous "Hoovervilles" of the Great Depression. However, NYC saw an epidemic of homelessness in the 1980s and this time it wasn't just men, long referred to as "bums;" these were -- once again -- families, (Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol was as eye-opening in 1988 as Riis' work a century before). In addition, a new "label" was invented -- "bag ladies"-- to describe the proliferation of elderly women who carried their worldly possessions in bags or in shopping carts.
Salaries could not keep up with the high cost of housing and people found themselves on the street (comprehensive article here) Clearly, I’m repeatedly drawn to the idea of housing insecurity. It is, after all, the “home base” from which all things stem: Security, sustenance, dreams . . . Having a place to call home is fundamental to living.
In December of 2019, I knew I wanted to pour myself into this new (old) project. Initially, I wanted to rent a series of run down motel rooms and stage 10-minute plays showcasing the various paths that might lead a person to become shelter insecure. (Motel Brats? A sequel to Hotel Brats, perhaps?)
One room might tell the story of a Veteran facing homelessness, (8% of the homeless pop. in the U.S. Read more here), another a single-parent (1/3 of the homeless) with children (59% of those who are shelter insecure are children). Women make up ¾ of the adults, and more than 80% of women with children who are homeless experienced domestic violence. Another motel room would spotlight someone battling addiction (38% alcohol addiction/26% chemical addiction), and in another room would be someone dealing with severe mental illness (33% - more here). Yet another room would focus on a person or family of color facing housing insecurity, (which recent reports indicate the pandemic has exacerbated).
Well, that was the plan.
I began reaching out to people to aid in my research in spring of 2020, including Northland Rescue Mission, when the pandemic hit. I put the project on hold, but I kept noodling it around. I approached actors I knew in town and invited them to join me for this journey. I was humbled when they said, “yes.” They became my troupe. It might seem a bit premature to find actors before you have written the play, but I knew that if I involved others it would make me more accountable. I’d stated my intention out loud, thereby putting it into motion.
LaGrave Then in fall of 2020, a couple of women I admire told me they were preparing meals and desserts for residents of LaGrave. LaGrave is a 43-unit apartment complex in Grand Forks for people who have been chronically housing insecure. A requirement for residency is one must not have been on a lease for 12-consecutive months. I got an idea: I could hold writing workshops at LaGrave for residents, and maybe I could help them share their stories in their own words. I approached the housing manager at LaGrave, Taylor Restad, and she graciously offered to allow me to hold workshops on Saturdays in February. On the first day, I invited one of the members of our little theatre troupe who is also a writer to join me for the workshop. Shayla O’Leary and I welcomed four people who showed up. We made tea and had cookies, and the residents shared parts of their story with us. We were all wearing face masks, but at one point a resident asked me if I was feeling overwhelmed. I imagine that my eyes were like two full moons over my mask. What they were sharing was overwhelming. I thought I had a fair idea of what living on the street would be like from my previous research, but I had no idea.
I did not know, for instance that a mother and child had slept in the slide tube of a playground one night. I did not know that a woman spent a night in a storage unit and made a fire to keep warm one winter. I did not know that scoring an elevator with a heater would be like checking into a Hilton when you do not have a place to call home.
I learned over the course of the next few months that those who survive on the streets are creative and scrappy. I learned that many create a “family” with specific roles just like in any family. There’s the one who panhandles, the one who runs for water, the ones who “snipe hunts”: Forages for cigarette butts. I learned so much about a world that exists all around us but tries its best to remain invisible. For to be invisible is to stay off the radar of the police whose job it is to maintain "order": They ticket people who sleep, litter, and consume alcohol or use drugs in public places. (GFPD also has a community outreach team that assists those living on the street in myriad ways and are to be commended for that work.)
Who the Play Does Not Represent
While professionals who work with homeless individuals gave me names of people who did not suffer from mental illness and/or addiction, those folks were not responsive to my requests for an interview. I can imagine they want to put that part of their life in their rear view mirror. One woman, whose name I was given was a university student, a member of the National Guard, a single-mom with three children. She was smart, attractive, and yet she, too, had been housing insecure. Not what most people imagine when they think of the homeless. Unfortunately, she did not respond to my request to visit. Another woman, again a single-parent – five children -- and a new American, had experienced shelter-insecurity, but she did not respond to my request to talk, either. Maybe she was too busy surviving to talk about surviving. Their stories are certainly part of the mural that illustrates the various roads that may lead to homelessness, but they are not part of the play I wrote.
The Convergence of Mental Illness & Addiction
Instead, a couple of commonalities kept bubbling up: Mental illness and addiction. In some cases, addiction began as a way to cope with untreated mental illness. In other cases, mental illness developed from the trauma of cycling in and out of homelessness and led to alcohol or drug use. In some cases, addiction developed as a way to cope with life on the street, a way to fit in, or even to stay warm. When I recognized that addiction (38% of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 26% are dependent on other harmful chemicals) and mental health issues were a common denominator (33%), it altered the course of my journey.
"In Search of Persephone" attempts to bring attention to the stories of those who may be termed “the untouchables”: They are the panhandlers who “get in your face” and make you feel – guilt, anger, disgust. They are the “bums” who are “sleeping it off” on a bench in the park. They are the ones that provoke you to cross the street when you see them headed your way, pushing a cart down the street, appearing unwashed, muttering to themselves. They are not the ones who have fallen on hard times. They are the ones who, in many cases, were born into hard times. One man who has been cycling in and out of homeless his entire life, even getting an apartment at LaGrave before being evicted for repeatedly fighting and disturbing other residents, told me he had his first drink at the age of 8 at a boarding school for Native Americans near Sisseton. His body craves vodka like yours craves water. He is not pretty; he can be scary. It’s his story I decided to share.
And then the journey took another detour. (Anyone who travels with me knows we will get lost a time or two.) A couple of members of the acting troupe and I went out to Town Square one blustery, March day to bring water and snacks to people living on the streets. We’d brought along a couple of pizzas, their boxes quickly getting soggy in the early spring rain. One man, who has been incredibly generous sharing his story of living on the streets, offered to serve as a liaison. He gave a high, piercing whistle to try and attract others who might be sheltering among the Cottonwoods down by the river. He spotted two men walking along the Greenway and called them over. “You know me,” he said, offering names of people they had in common.
The younger of the two men, I’ll call him John, revealed that he was walking his friend, “Bill,” to detox. Bill repeated “I’m not myself when I’m like this. I’m not myself”. He said he had a couple of kids he wanted to get sober for and that his heart didn’t feel right. John’s face showed great concern for his friend, but he also proudly shared that he, John, had been sober for almost a year. He’d gone to a 7 a.m. AA meeting just that day. John had hope Bill could get sober, too. That’s when our liaison offered him one more drink for the road, and some anti-anxiety pills to calm his nerves. John yelled, “No! You don’t understand – he could black out! He’s having heart problems!” Bill looked longingly at the bottle that was extended to him. “But maybe just one more drink?”
“No! We’re going to take you to Detox,” John said forcefully. It was a chilling moment for my actors and me. Would our presence change the trajectory of a life? John was trying so hard to do the right thing for his friend, and we’d gotten in his path.
“I’m not the same person when I’m sober,” Bill said, looking up at us from where he sat on the ground. “I’m not the same person.” John offered his friend a hand and pulled him up. My actors and I urged them on and wished them well. It wasn’t just the cold rain that made me shiver as they got back on their path. Birth Day
In Search of Persephone was born in the drizzle of that cold, March afternoon. John was like the hero in a Greek myth who was trying desperately to deliver his friend to his destination. The stakes were as high as they could be. While the detox center was less than a mile away, John and Bill would encounter temptations and distractions. It made me realize that the road home is not a straight path. There are “Road Closed” signs to negotiate. Pulling oneself up “by the bootstraps” only works if you own boots. At some point in my imagination, John became Demeter, and Bill became Persephone.
GLBTQ Kids on the Street
And then the path twisted again. I came across another fact: Among those living on the streets of our country are teenagers, often teens who identify as members of the GLBTQ community. GLBTQ youth have a 120% greater risk of becoming homeless. 120%. Imagine: They feel safer and more accepted on the street than at home with family.
"The true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable." -- Mahatma Ghandi
It’s easy to be compassionate for people who look and act like ourselves. The family, for instance, who loses everything in a fire and is homeless due to that tragedy. We write a check. We hold a clothing drive. But for the addict, or the person who wanders around ranting and dirty, or the person who --despite our repeated attempts to help can’t seem to “get their life together” – well, those people? Those people call upon us to have a depth of compassion we may not be used to accessing. That well of compassion is in all of us, and it is surprisingly deep if we look.
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Please join us on June 12 at 2 or 4 p.m. at University Park in Grand Forks. All proceeds from tickets goes to Homeless Helpers in GF. Tickets available here. Funding of this project is made possible by the Public Arts Commission, Art on the Red, and the University of ND.
Can't make it June 12? We hope to perform at Rally for Recovery, Sept. 9th on the Greenway, and at the Greenway Takeover Festival, Sept. 9-11 in GF.