Oral history nonprofit visits county to collect stories of homelessness

Work and worship, war and romance, family ties, heroism and grief. StoryCorps helps all kinds of people share the gamut of life experience. More than 50,000 interviews have been recorded. Listeners hear StoryCorps tales on NPR. Soon, StoryCorps will be in Snohomish County to gather personal accounts of being homeless.

“Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness” is part of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, supported by the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation.

StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that collects oral histories, will be recording at the YWCA Family Village in Lynnwood oJuly 29-Aug. 2. The group is in Pierce County this week, hosted by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, and will be in Seattle and south King County later in August, all to hear and preserve unique stories of families who have been homeless.

Michelle Bova, custom services manager for StoryCorps, said the project is reaching out for “the voices that are less heard.”

“We work to give people their own voice,” Bova said Tuesday.

Conversations will be about whatever the subjects want to highlight. “They may not want to talk about their darkest moments. While they reflect on a time when they didn’t have a place to live, it may be about what strengths they are drawing on now,” Bova said.

Erin Murphy, director of community engagement for YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish, said the agency is making recording appointments for families who have been homeless, perhaps years ago, and those who still are. “We very much want both perspectives,” she said. “Too often, people speak on behalf of individuals and families experiencing homelessness.”

Telling a story can be empowering, Murphy said. And agencies working with homeless people also expect to learn from the project.

Up to 90 stories will be recorded, 30 in each of the three counties.

Every conversation recorded by New York-based StoryCorps is archived at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. And each storyteller gets a free CD. Stories are aired weekly on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” but Bova said only a very few — about 52 per year — are broadcast. A new StoryCorps initiative, “OutLoud,” is collecting experiences from LGBT communities around the country.

The recorded accounts of homelessness, funded by a Gates foundation grant, will be a resource for the region’s housing advocacy community — “nonprofits, individual advocates, those really committed to fighting and ending family homelessness,” Murphy said. “We have real stories, real life,” Murphy said, and one aim is “to influence our policy makers.”

“We hope it will represent a broad range of experiences,” Bova said. “What was their journey? Where are they today?”

Teachers or others who have worked with homeless families may join in a recorded conversation. “But the focus will be on people who went through this experience with children under 18,” Bova said. “Where did the child go to school? We had someone mention a son doing sports after school. He couldn’t come home late after playing sports because the shelter had a curfew.”

Hear the word “homeless,” people may think first of a man on the street. Bova said homeless families aren’t so visible. People with children are living in cars, in motel rooms, and in shelters.

Anyone involved in Project Homeless Connect last week at Everett’s Evergreen Middle School could easily see that there is no single face of homelessness. Gray-haired veterans, babies in strollers, large families, teens and grandparents — more than 1,300 people — attended the event that offers free services to those who are homeless.

Recordings made by StoryCorps, which was founded in 2003 by radio producer David Isay, are most often a 40-minute conversation between two people who know each other. Facilitators help the unscripted talks along.

In a way, StoryCorps is an update on American Life Histories collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Each story is a part of who we are.

“The larger goal of StoryCorps, it’s a way to remind ourselves of the connection between two people,” Bova said.

“We hear all the time from folks that they tell someone something they have never before told that person — even between husband and wife,” she said. “It helps them get to know one another better.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Telling stories

StoryCorps will be in Snohomish County July 29-Aug. 2 to record conversations with families who have experienced homelessness. Stories will be recorded at YWCA Family Village, 19703 68th Ave. W., Lynnwood. Child care available. For an appointment to tell your family’s story, call Denise Miller at 206-461-4464 or email: findingourway@storycorps.org

Learn more about StoryCorps at: www.storycorps.org

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