Naming the Homeless
Telling stories from life on the streets
By Klein Aleardi

When Lauren Purnell sits on dirty steps or in front of vacant city buildings, she notices how most people quickly walk by and avert their eyes. She knows they’re thinking the worst of the homeless people she’s sitting with – assuming they’re junkies, alcoholics, freeloaders. 

So with a notepad and pen in hand, Purnell decided to challenge those assumptions, one story at a time. Twice a month, the 20-year-old journalism student at Rowan College at Burlington County ventures into Philadelphia to spend her Saturdays speaking with and, most importantly, listening to people who are spending their days and nights on the city’s streets. 

“I want people to see the inner workings of the homeless community,” she says. “I don’t want them to hear the word homeless and automatically think drug addicts or alcoholics. One of the men I interviewed put it really well: ‘Everybody is just one bad situation away from where I’m at. This could happen to anybody.’” 

Once she returns to her Florence home, Purnell writes about the personal stories of the men and women she’s talked to and publishes them on her blog, aptly titled Naming the Homeless. 

“I named it that to show people that there is more to the homeless than the stereotypes you often hear,” she says. “It’s a population that often is ignored because it’s not something that’s pleasant. Now, it has a name and a story.” 

Purnell started the blog six months ago at the suggestion of one of her professors, and it’s already impacted how she views the people she meets on the streets.  

“The conversations get very personal, very quickly,” Purnell says. “Usually interviews last a half-hour to an hour, and after, I feel like I’ve known them most of their lifetime. It’s amazing how much you can find out about a person if you just ask questions.” 

Lauren Purnell interviews Jeanette

Those questions often lead to heartbreaking answers, like when one woman named Jeanette told Purnell about the murder of her son and the devastating chain of events that led to her life on the streets. 

A mother of two, Jeanette lost her daughter after a fire, she explained to Purnell. A few years later, Jeanette saved her son from a car accident by taking the full force of the car. This is all after battling meningitis as a child, when doctors said she wouldn’t make it and she required leg braces. Then, Jeanette recounted the story of her son’s murder: He became a doctor and bought the family a home. Two months after moving in, he and his girlfriend were shot. 

“I wasn’t expecting her to say that,” says Purnell. “She was so upbeat while talking to us and so excited to talk to us. She said it was a sign from her children that everything was going to be OK.” 

Purnell says that approaching homeless strangers like Jeanette has forced her to go outside her comfort zone. “The first time I went out, I had a hard time coming up with the courage to approach somebody, so it took me a couple of hours.” 

Those nerves prompted Purnell to ask her mom, Kathy, the quintessential “people person,” to join her. Her 9-year-old sister, Jasmine, recently expressed interest in coming along, and together the three of them carry the care packages they deliver to Purnell’s interview subjects. 

Before an interview starts, Purnell offers each man or woman a care package full of everything from winter clothing and shampoo to snacks and chocolate bars. Purnell had originally planned to fund the packages with her own money, but the working college student quickly discovered that the bill was steep – so she asked the Internet for help. 

Donations have been sent in from friends, neighbors and even complete strangers wanting to lend a helping hand. People have sent both physical donations and contributed money to the blog’s GoFundMe page, which Purnell uses to assemble her packages. 

“I want to put a large variety of items in there,” Purnell says. “I try to think, ‘I wonder when the last time this person got a box of chocolates or something personal like that.’” 

The chocolate bar was especially a big hit with her first subject, a woman named Dora. Purnell describes Dora as energetic and upbeat, despite her situation. A recovering crack addict, Dora has turned to her faith to combat her addiction – she’s recently started taking classes, and her new boyfriend is helping her reconnect with her child who is living in foster care. 

“They’re putting in as much effort as they can,” she says. “The chocolate bar was one of the first things she saw, and she was very excited. She said, ‘You got me chocolate?!’” 

While Dora battles her addiction, Purnell’s next interviewee, a man named Chaz, found himself on the street after a tough divorce. “He was living the American Dream,” says Purnell. “He had two businesses and a family, and then it fell apart. He fell into depression after they got divorced.” 

Chaz, one of Lauren Purnell’s interview subjects

Despite facing unbelievable circumstances, some of the men and women Purnell meets surprise her with their optimism and willingness to help others. Chaz spends much of his days helping stray cats. Purnell says he travels up and down city streets to find stray cats and takes care of them until he can find them  

a permanent home, even though he doesn’t have one himself. 

“He’s taking in these animals who are in the same situation he is in, and offering them a better opportunity,” says Purnell. “Homelessness is a bit like rock bottom, and if you’re going to progress from that situation, you have to stay positive and try to be optimistic.”  

After a few interviewees mentioned that they usually frequent the same city streets, Purnell now prints her published blog posts and brings them with her each time she ventures into Philadelphia, in case she passes a familiar face. She also adds any comments from her website, especially when they include helpful resources. 

“Many times, people would comment with advice, like organizations the interviewee should look into,” she says. “It’s a way for us to show how their story has affected people.” 

Purnell also has plenty of advice for readers of her blog. 

“Even if you don’t have anything to give, just offer your time,” she says. “Ask them how their day is. It doesn’t always have to be something substantial, just something that will contribute to their day in a positive way. That one random act of kindness may be enough to give them the encouragement to get back on their feet and try to go better their situation.”   

April 2018
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