Breaking free from homelessness subject of winning essay

    The Soloist is journalist Steve Lopez’s chronicle of his efforts to help a homeless man living on the streets of Los Angeles. It is this year’s One Book One Philadelphia selection. In conjunction with that program, the Philadelphia Daily News sponsored an essay contest for survivors or current sufferers of homelessness. The winning essayist spoke to WHYY and told some of her story.

    “The Soloist” is journalist Steve Lopez’s chronicle of his efforts to help a homeless man living on the streets of Los Angeles. It is this year’s One Book One Philadelphia selection. In conjunction with that program, the Philadelphia Daily News sponsored an essay contest for survivors or current sufferers of homelessness. The winning essayist spoke to WHYY and told some of her story.

    Transcript:
    Johnson: “I didn’t want to listen to nobody. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t have to struggle growing up, so I was naive, I was really naive. I picked up, and I came here, all I had was my best friend and that’s when life hit me.”

    Oneisha Johnson entered a homeless shelter with her daughter when she was 18 years old, after moving to Philadelphia on a lark from Alexandria, Virginia.

    Johnson: “At that time when I was going through, I met two of my best friends at the shelter, we were sitting, we were dreaming, that we would speak about it, come back to the shelter. To be able to speak about it now, it feels good. I only imagined the day, I never thought it would come, and it came so suddenly, I can say what I went through.”

    In her essay, which was published Monday in the Philadelphia Daily News, Johnson chronicles the steps she took to overcome homelessness. She got her first job in the gift store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, learned how to budget money and secured a one-bedroom apartment. But other things were more important. She reads from the essay.

    Johnson: “To have a new house or apartment is good but, if the inside of a man or woman’s soul is still empty lost or depressed, then no change has been done. Change begins within the soul and state of mind. I say we begin by building a foundation of love hope and self esteem. A strong foundation can never be broken.”

    At 30 years old, with four children, and a job as a customer representative at an insurance company, Oneisha Johnson feels she’s learned a few things about self improvement. She’s been working on a book called A Prison without Walls, targeted at young women and single mothers going through similar struggles. She says winning the essay contest is just another step in her process of self improvement and getting that book written.

    Johnson: “When I was younger I turned to writing when I was sad, when I felt alone. I would just write. I never thought about myself as being a writer. I loved poetry, and then when I became homeless, I said I like this, but I was afraid to put it out on print. I said I’m gonna keep this to myself. this essay was the first thing that has ever been in print. And it is an honor to me. The first thing I wrote in print was about being homeless, at my lowest, and it’s humbling, and it’s an honor to me.”

    Johnson hopes to finish her book sometime this year.

    More information:
    The Black Pearl Orchestra with The Soloist author Steve Lopez and Project H.O.M.E. leader Sister Mary Scullion will be at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Room 114, tomorrow at 7:30 PM.

    Event is FREE and open to the public and donations of children’s books for the Free Library or other items for Project H.O.M.E. will be accepted. Details are available at the Free Library of Philadelphia website.

    Listen:
    Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose “Save Link As” to download.

    [audio: arts20090318essay.mp3]

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.