The stories we tell ourselves
Throughout the past twenty years, I have made opportunity to talk to, and sometimes interview people living on the streets, people without a home. In Phoenix, Northern Colorado, and most recently in Austin I have listened to the stories of those who found themselves– or made choices which placed them out of shelter and instead, in a sleeping bag beneath a bridge, in a recess between two buildings or two dumpsters in an alley.

It is not my intent to fix homelessness, for this is a job better handled by far more experienced and dedicated organizations. It is simply my desire to hear the stories, and in some cases to tell the stories to others.

In November of 2008 I was in Austin Texas for the annual Supercomputing conference. Late one night, I was walking down 6th Street to my car which was parked beneath the I-34 overpass. A man stood to my right, also waiting for the light to change. As we walked, I engaged him in conversation. It became readily apparent that he was without shelter that night, for he was looking for a place to sleep. I offered to get a hotel room for him, and he politely refused. I insisted, and he accepted.

That night Luciano and I talked for more than an hour. His voice, his demeanor, and his stories were compelling to me. At the door of the hotel room, I stated that I would return soon, to capture his stories.

In January, I flew back to Austin for two meetings with IBM, and with me I brought a camera and digital audio recorder. I spent two nights and an afternoon recording Luciano’s stories, and those of three other people without homes.

Their stories were familiar to me: family often within twenty minutes, a bad, sometimes violent relationship with a sibling or parent, someone who once said, “I hate you!” or simply a sense of pride stronger than the desire for a warm, clean place to sleep.

But what I have found to be prevalent in all these stories is negative self-talk, words used to describe one self, “My mother loves my sister more than me”, “I fucked up again,” or “My brother, he hates me”; and the vocabulary used to describe others, “My boss was an idiot!”, “I quit my job ’cause the guys in the shop were assholes,” and the most common, “I got fucked over!” or “I got screwed!” –a sense of being a victim to the world around them.

A few weeks ago I received a call from a young man whom I met in Austin when shooting with Luciano. He just wanted to check in with me, to say hello. I knew he had been looking for a job, and asked about his search. He responded, “I just can’t flip burgers any more. It’s money, but it’s hard when someone I know comes in and sees me behind the counter, in the kitchen. They don’t mean to say anything to hurt my feelings, but they ask, ‘Man! You still working here?’ I am 28. I fucked up a bunch when I was younger and sometimes, I still fuck up. I want to get my life straight again”

We talked for an hour, and I learned that he lived in a foster home as a kid. He has experienced instability and homelessness at a few levels, then and now. When I asked what he would like to do, for a job, he said he wants to be a counselor for kids in foster families.

I responded, “Then you didn’t fuck up at all.”

He said, “What do you mean? I have been to jail. I live in a shelter. I don’t have a steady job.”

“Exactly. That’s perfect. You have an education that no school can give you. You have experience to prepare you to be a counselor that cannot be matched by any formal education. Yes, you will likely need a degree in psychology or your basic teaching certificate, but man, you will be good.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Do you think the kids you will work with would rather talk to some guy who is straight-laced, only talking about what he learned in school–or you? Who will they trust? Who will they connect with most easily?”

He paused, considering my words, and then said, “Yeah, I think you are right. I never thought about it that way. I have been there. I understand them.”

“Exactly. Stop telling yourself how you fucked up. Start seeing your experiences in this life as an education. There are no deadlines, no limits to when or how you learn. It doesn’t matter if you are twenty eight or sixty eight, you can start a new life and do what you know you want to do. Your friends who started their own business or have a steady job do not have your experience. They could never help those kids the way you can. So go do it.”

We talked again recently. He is moving from Austin back to San Antonio to stay with family until he can get a job and get back into school.

Words as weapons

A teacher says, “Wrong. Does someone else have the correct answer?”

A classmate says, “You are so stupid!”

A parent says, “I don’t love you.”

And to one’s own self, we might say, “I am worthless.”

I am growing to understand that these simple vibrations of the vocal chords, these sets of sounds strung together are perhaps the most important foundations for who we grow to become in our lives. Independent of how they are transmitted, between mouth and ear or fully internal to our own heads, words received without filters and without boundaries can penetrate deep into the very marrow of our self-identity and framework.

Instead, the teacher says, “No, but let’s work on this together to find the correct answer.”

A classmate says, “Hey, would you like some help with that?”

A parents says, “Right now, I am feeling disconnected and need some time to come back. Please give me this space.”

And to one’s own self, we might say, “I am feeling really low and without hope. But is is ok to be here, now. In fact, this low place is part of a natural cycle that everyone experiences. This low helps me to appreciate the high that is forthcoming. It’s going to be ok.”

Non-violent Communication
In my life, I have been blessed by parents who studied under Virginia Satir and Meril Tulis and by a recent introduction to Non-Violent Communication which has helped me to work through a struggle with tendency toward reaction instead of response.

Through my own work and through listening to others, I have come to believe that the words we hear in our head, the words we say to ourselves and to others, are the most powerful tools for change available to us.