For years, Miriam Walker would be up for hours after serving at a homeless shelter to write about the people she met.
There were people who had been raped or abused as children. Many lost their children or have been estranged for decades. Some have been in accidents or lost their jobs.
Self-medicating to deal with the trauma was common. They needed mental health treatment, and their physical health had been ignored. Regular stints in jail become part of their narratives.
“People just don’t become homeless. There is always something that happened,” Walker said. “I would come back from the shelter smelling like grease and tater tots, but my adrenalin from meeting people and hearing stories kept me up until 1 or 2 in the morning writing it down. It feels so good to help.”
Walker put these stories into a book, “Homeless Has a Name,” released on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. It is published by the Tulsa-based Joseph Ministry LLC and available on Amazon, area bookstores and from Walker’s website.
The book contains 19 biographies of people she knew from the shelter. She changed their names because she wants the focus to be on their experiences, not their identities.
“I would like people to see the homeless community as people. I want people who have a negative opinion about our homeless neighbors to see there are a lot of good people. My hope is to shed a light on this and give a voice and name to people who are homeless.”
For decades, the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa has hosted homeless initiatives to link the various programs and collect data.
In Tulsa, a Janurary count shows more than 5,600 people and families were homeless in a year. Of those, 65% were homeless for the first time, 30% have a disability and 7% are veterans.
One in five homeless people has a job. It shows how many people walk a razor’s edge of being able to afford housing.
Hairstylist Mary Breedlove has been a regular volunteer at the Night Light program, which forms every Thursday at a downtown overpass to tend to people needing help.
The pop-up mini-village includes people who cut hair, wash feet, give out clothes, cook meals and provide other basic necessities.
“I’ve sat and listened and asked about their stories,” Breedlove said. “It’s not just about homeless people, it’s also about very low-income families. And they don’t always look homeless, or what people think of as homeless.
“I love listening to them. No one ever gets to ask them questions. No one ever asks, ‘How was your day?’ They are usually in a shelter together and are a community. I treat them as a guest because they are friends and our neighbors.”
Serving others doesn’t take special abilities.
It could be buying food to donate, instead of grabbing old or nearly expired things from a pantry. It could be hosting a coat or blanket drive. Some people could offer to do taxes because even low-income people must file the forms.
Nonprofits are not shy about letting people know their needs.
When Breedlove found out about Walker’s book, she immediately bought several copies to give away, including to some formerly homeless people.
“When I did Tulsa Night Light, it just captured me,” Breedlove said. “I don’t want to be a light when they see me. I see the light of Jesus when I see them. People don’t look at them in the eye and will treat them like low-class.
“But there are so many different stories I hear. Listening to people’s stories is like a window into their soul.”
Walker didn’t have an inclination to work with homeless people until invited by her church to a program at the Dream Center specifically for that population.
While working at the door to welcome people inside, a long-lost family member entered.
“That opened up something inside of me,” Walker said. “This is someone I grew up with. We went to the same church, went on vacations together and played together.”
That night, she sat with her relative for dinner, and it was clear he had been on the streets for years.
“It was all I could do to not have a breakdown. It was all new to me, but normal to him,” she said.
Walker started volunteering regularly at the Salvation Army shelter every Saturday night. Sometimes, that meant hiring a babysitter to go.
“I would meet them and talk to them,” she said. “It’s difficult because you don’t just say, ‘Hey, how did you get homeless?’ You go week after week and see the same people. A lot have gone through stuff we have gone through, but we have people to help us out.
“You realize that’s not some guy under a bridge. You learn his name is Robert, and he is an alcoholic because his son died. Or, you meet Brenda who was abused by her mother’s party-going friends, and she started drinking what was left over in the party glasses, making her an alcoholic by 15.”
Seeing the same faces led Walker to call homelessness a crisis.
“It’s a cycle, and it’s sad,” she said. “But no one is staging interventions for someone living on the street.”
Walker originally posted some of the stories on her Facebook page. She instead decided to publish a book, but it’s taken a while.
Walker is a home-based, child-care provider and took on the responsibility of raising a grandchild. She had to stop going to the shelter regularly a few years ago, and the book publication took a back seat.
“I’ve had this on three laptops in 10 years,” she said.
Through some networking, she located a publisher and revived the project.
“This is for our whole community,” she said. “These are all people I’ve met at the shelter, and it’s been a God thing for me.”
But, this is not a faith-based, scripture-filled book.
“I did that on purpose. We have homeless people who are believers and some non-believers,” Walker said. “Homelessness doesn’t discriminate.”
Holidays naturally bring out philanthropic feelings, but the need lasts year-round.
“We are all here to help somebody,” Walker said. “You never know when a loving gesture will be the prompt for that person to get out of what they’re in. You never know what it will take to motivate someone.”