Homeless Hearts: Life Stories of Women in a Homeless Shelter

Jean Newsome is a nurse practitioner and author living in Birmingham, AL. Moved to write a book a few years ago, Ms. Newsome took the opportunity to help other women tell their stories about their lives, homelessness, and beyond. Homeless Hearts includes twelve personal stories that are honest and full of hope. HRC’s Kristen Paquette talks with the author.

“’I left my daughter’s and here I am…fifty-three years old and in a homeless shelter, she said without a trace of self-pity.’ ‘How do you feel about this,’ I asked. ‘Content; peaceful,’ she answered thoughtfully. I could tell she was telling the truth. ‘I’m getting on my feet, and I’ve got plans for the future. I’m emotionally healthier and feeling better about things. I’m at a good place in my life.’”

-- Candace, as told to Jean Newsome in Homeless Hearts: Life Stories of Women in a Homeless Shelter

Q: Tell me a little about Homeless Hearts: Life Stories of Women in a Homeless Shelter.

A: Homeless Hearts is a collection of the life stories of twelve different women in a homeless shelter, told in the first person. I used their exact words as much as possible. The women tell their life stories from early childhood memories up to the day that I interviewed them at the shelter. They each describe in detail the people, events, traumas and circumstances that led them to homelessness. Each chapter closes with a 3-page questionnaire that I called "From Her Heart." The women wrote about their own definitions of such variables as "happiness is...."; "friendship is...."; "love is..." and many others. I intentionally left those answers and pages unedited and in each woman's own handwriting in the book.

Q: What made you decide to write this book?

A: To be honest, I don’t really know. After my son was diagnosed with cancer, I knew that I wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure about what. I decided to just start writing, and then I realized I would rather help people to tell their own stories. I never realized how powerful that could really be. As a nurse practitioner, I had met a few women who were homeless. What struck me is how much they were just like me. I started doing volunteer work at a local shelter, and after a few casual conversations, I realized that I wanted to write this book to get their stories out in the world.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you as you learned about the women in the book?

A: I couldn’t believe that these women came from environments and childhoods that many of us don’t even know exist. The patterns of trauma and abuse are devastating. What is so touching about this book is that in spite of these histories, the women have such strong hopes for better things. They hope for work, dignity and peace. Some of the women talk about shelter life as a time of peace, a safe haven. This perspective is so interesting because so many of us think of being homeless and living in a shelter as hitting rock bottom – but for some people, it’s the peaceful support they need to move forward.

Q: What are your hopes for this book?

A: I hope that others will get to see the life stories of these women. I think that most average people have no idea how women and men end up homeless.

I hope that it promotes awareness and learning, and that it stimulates volunteerism. People don’t need to volunteer at a homeless shelter to help end homelessness – they can help adults to learn to read, volunteer at food banks, donate clothes to help women get to job interviews. All these things can help women get back on their feet.

I also hope that both individuals and groups will use Homeless Hearts as a basis from which to discuss, learn about, and even debate homelessness in America. It's a book that will definitely generate emotions and conversation!

Q: How is the book being used now?

A: Right now, three universities are reviewing the book for inclusion in their social work curricula. It is not written as a textbook, but can easily be used in educational settings. I actually designed the book to be used in classes and groups such as book clubs, religious- based adult education, sororities, and certainly for individuals, as well. Homeless Hearts intentionally leaves the reader drawing his/her own conclusions about many, many different variables that contribute to homelessness among women. It's not a traditional textbook, but anyone who reads it will definitely think differently, learn, and grow...that's what education is all about!

Jean Newsome is a nurse practitioner and author living in Birmingham, AL. To request copies of Homeless Hearts: Life Stories of Women in a Homeless Shelter, e-mail homelesshearts@gmail.com

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