Luke Risher, a high school senior born and raised in Germantown, talks to Project HOME’s David Brown about his experience with 25 years of homelessness.
This year the popular NPR feature StoryCorps is sponsoring “The Great Thanksgiving Listen.” Over Thanksgiving weekend, high school students from across the United States are creating personal oral histories by recording interviews with elders, and NewsWorks is featuring some of those local conversations this week.
Here, Luke Risher, a high school senior born and raised in Germantown, joins David Brown, who was homeless for 25 years. Brown now lives at Ray Homes and works for Project HOME as a sales associate at HomeSpun Boutique.
Their lightly edited conversation follows.
Luke: The prompt was: “Who do you see as elders or leaders in the community?” And I thought of you, because I know — I think about the life experiences you’ve had and then how you used that. So I wanted to ask some questions about what your experience has been. And so, I know, specifically regarding Project HOME.
David: Well, it was a struggle. I never went to high school. I never learned how to read or write, and so basically I didn’t know nothing about Project HOME or any other organization, so I didn’t know how to reach out to them.
Luke: So, once you got into a hard place, you just had nowhere to go?
David: Nowhere to go. And when I went to shelter systems, they didn’t give you what you needed at that time. They didn’t really care about the human beings. They just cared about the statistics. And Project HOME showed me a different light on how they wanted to end homelessness, and they brought me into their organization. And I’ve been with them for the last five years, and I wouldn’t trade this life for the world now.
Luke: Being on the streets for 25 years is a long time. What made you come in?
David: Me and 25 of my homeless friends, which I call my family, decided to build a home away from home. Right now where we lived is a million-dollar museum called The Barnes Foundation, but before that it was called The Youth Study Center.
And the reason we chose to sleep there was because we were right around the corner from [the police precinct], and we were in sight, but we made an agreement that we would be gone before traffic started in the morning at four o’clock. But from six o’clock at night to four o’clock in the morning, that’s where we slept at, and that’s where we ate at, because it was a safe haven for us.
And what made me come in, really made me come in, was understanding how Project HOME cared, and how they came diligently asking us to come in. But out of the 25 people that were living there with me, only two of us are alive today.
Luke: What did daily life look like for you?
David: The Free Library became a place for us to wash up in the bathroom. We did a lot of dumpster diving. We ate out of trashcans. Every night we would visit people, like Papa John’s. We’d go down there and get the last pizza and food. We hung in the library all day long, because it was a safe haven for us as and it was a warm place. That was a daily routine for us.
Luke: It gets so cold in the winters. How’d you survive?
David: We had so many blankets, and we had so many refrigerator boxes. Once you get underneath them blankets, you don’t even think about the coldness, because you’re warm. And the body heat right there it just accumulates. You know what I mean? The cold wasn’t the issue. The issue more times was in the summertime, because it was so hot and we had no place to go.
Luke: What were the first steps coming out of homelessness?
David: Well, when I moved in, it took me exactly four to five weeks to learn how to sleep in a bed. I slept on my floor. I had to learn everything again like a baby. I had to learn how to clean. I had to learn how to go shopping. I had to learn how to do independent living. And Project HOME gave me the tools that I needed. They took me to doctors appointments. They took me to job specialists and things of that nature.
Luke: A lot of people come through Project HOME but you’ve stayed and given back to the community, and volunteered in different ways. What motivated you to do that?
David: I knew how it felt when somebody walked by me and just turned their nose up. Or I had a friend that got set on fire because kids set his blanket on fire. And if I can be a voice for them, that keeps me going every day. Wanting to give back. Wanting to express and let people know about homelessness. That they’re not aliens, and they’re not diseased. They are human beings. That they have struggles. Some of them might be addictions, some of them might be alcoholics, some of them might [have mental problems] but they’re still human beings, and everybody needs help.
Luke: What’s your vision for helping other people? What are your goals?
David: Well, my vision for helping other people is basically just being kind to them. Just talking to them and caring about them. Project HOME has a saying, “None of us are home until all of us are home.” My saying is, “God opened my eyes today.” A lot of people, he didn’t choose to open their eyes. So everyday he opens my eyes, gives me a strong fight to go out there and speak for the homeless and fight for the homeless.
Luke: If you have one message to convey to everyone, both homeless and not homeless. What would that be?
David: My message … to the homeless is seek help. Seek help and really, really, really, really want help. We have a lot of obstacles out there. If you just ask for help, and be sincere in it and be committed to, [there is] help out there for you. But you have to want it. You know what I mean?
And then my answer to the other people would be to just reach out to [homeless people]. Show them a little kindness. I’m not saying give them money, I’m saying show them some kindness. Give them an address where they can go get help. Give them a sense of pride. A sense of dignity. Just don’t walk by them like they don’t exist.
Luke: That’s all I got, but we could keep going, we could keep talking. Thank you for sharing. It’s always powerful. And yeah, I think it’s an amazing story, what you do, your vocation. So thank you
David: Yeah, I just want to thank you for letting me share this with you. And I hope people hear this and understand about the homeless and the mission that Project HOME has to offer. Because we all have something to offer, whether it be just a smile, whether we just, “Hello” — it’s a big thing for homeless people. And the main thing is showing them that you really care. And that’s my whole mission. I wake up every day, praising God for waking me up and thanking Project HOME for allowing me to come in and have the beautiful facility that I live in.