By Rupal Ramesh Shah
The stories we tell shape public opinion and can drive policy changes in the direction of social justice. In addition to writing for Amjambo Africa, I write for street newspapers, which are newspapers sold by people who do not have housing. These include Street Roots in Portland, Oregon; Street Sheet in San Francisco; Spare Change News in Boston; Real Change News in Seattle; and The Homeless Voice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Street newspapers cover stories about the unhoused, including communities such as asylum seekers, undocumented people, and formerly incarcerated people.
According to the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, over half a million people are without homes on a single night in the U.S. Approximately 65% of these people stay in shelters and another 35% spend the night on the streets. Many of us grow up with basic privileges that we take for granted, such as easy access to clean drinking water, good healthcare, and homes. It’s not until we steer away from our comfort zones, and away from our social bubbles, that we realize how different other people’s lives can be. Storytelling, and reading stories, can help us learn about the lives of others.
I have interviewed many people who have particularly inspired me and pushed me to think outside the box. In 2010, I met Kurt Ronan, who had hit rock bottom before I met him, but was helped by Back on My Feet, an organization that helps people through running. According to Ronan, before he joined the program, he was at a very low point in his life and wanted to die. But joining the program gave him a new hope for life. Since then, his passion for running has developed, and now he runs marathons. What moved me about Ronan is that he found the strength not to give up.
A few years ago, I interviewed three young men who were part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a college program associated with Bard College that offers educational opportunities to select incarcerated people. As I interviewed each of them, I learned that they all grew up with various significant challenges in their lives. The men have now completed their sentences, graduated with degrees from the Bard Prison Initiative, and now have full-time employment. They serve as role models not only for other young men, but also for the rest of us. Their story is about transformational change, and second chances!
While working on a story for Spare Change News, I met Robert Sondak, who at one time lived without housing. He was a writer, too, and sometimes we would sit together at a coffee shop in Cambridge to work on stories together. One of the pieces we worked on (in 2015) told his own story. Over the years, he has continued to write and to earn income through his storytelling. Nothing makes my heart happier than to see the success and prosperity of Mr. Sondak – a fellow writer and advocate for the unhoused. After all, if I can use writing to advocate for social justice, I am even happier to know that others can overcome adversity and do the same.
Recently, the city of Portland, Maine, stated that it is no longer able to guarantee housing for people arriving in the state without resources. As a result, more new arrivals in the state will be unhoused. This includes the many asylum-seeking families who continue to seek refuge in Maine and other states across the nation. In recent months, most of the street newspapers have focused their writing on bringing awareness to the challenges refugees and asylum seekers continuously face due to housing shortages. Asylum seekers continue to increase in numbers and as of May, Maine was housing about 1,200 individuals, most of whom are from various African countries. Since the city’s announcement, more than 11 families (40 individuals) have arrived and will need to be housed.
Journalism can be a powerful tool for community activism, and I have learned that it is important to tell stories with honesty, sensitivity, and respect. My own thinking and perspectives have been challenged by those I have interviewed over the years. If it wasn’t for our open conversations, I wouldn’t have had the chance to grow as a writer, and an activist.