Author Interviews

'Criminal of Poverty' a Look at Growing Up Homeless

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Author Lisa "Tiny" Gray-Garcia's life turned upside down at age 11 when her mother lost her job and she had to live on the street. Gray-Garcia talks with Farai Chideya about her life on the streets, which she chronicles in the book Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America.


I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

If you're one of our East Coast listeners, you might be sitting at home by a warm fire while it snows outside. But not everyone has a home to shelter in. Three and a half million Americans experience homelessness in any given year and more than a third are children. Journalist and activist Lisa Gray-Garcia was once one of those kids. Also known as Tiny, Lisa has a new book chronicling her journey, "Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America." She explains why homelessness is considered a crime.

Ms. LISA GRAY-GARCIA (Author, "Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America"): It's illegal to sleep in your vehicle. And people don't know that but you actually get cited for sleeping in your vehicle. Which is really interesting because if you have a really big, like, camper and you take a trip across the country, you're not cited for sleeping in your vehicle. But when you actually sleep in your vehicles because you have no home and you're in the wrong neighborhood, and perhaps of the wrong color or have what we call a driving while poor violation, DWP or DWB, you're going to be cited.

CHIDEYA: I want you to take me back to when you were literally tiny. When was the first time that you knew that you were in jeopardy as a little girl, in jeopardy of not having a place to live?

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: My mom, who is actually mixed-race orphan from the streets of Philly and who worked her way up from nothing to try to get her MSW degree, got, you know, a job. So for two years we had this, like, sort of little bit better than very low-income life. So 11 years old, she got laid - I was 11. She got laid off from her job and in the whole cliche notion of one paycheck away from homelessness was exactly our reality.

Because she was an orphan, she was a torture victim as a child, suffering severe abuse. And when she was laid off that was a blow to her psychologically that she really couldn't surmount, and she really became mentally disabled that point. At 11 years old it essentially became my job in a lot of ways to take care of her. And from that moment on for, like, the next 10 years we dealt with unending, intense poverty and homelessness in the U.S.

CHIDEYA: One of the things that strikes me about your book that is unexpected is that you could do this as an absolutely relentlessly depressing narrative, but you actually managed to find humor in some of the things that you did. Perhaps it's because your mother, although she was someone who had severe emotional problems, also saw the creativity and the vivid ways that you could use your imagination. Perhaps it's from your own imagination. How did you survive spiritually during that time that you and your mother were homeless?

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Well, thank you for bringing up that about my mom. Because the bottom line is although my mom had emotionally and psychological disability, she's also an artist, she's also, as I say, for without whom there would be no me. And she did passed in March of 2006, so I'm still dealing with some of that emotion. But she was able to laugh at some of the most terrifying, tragic things and I with her, and that in and of itself was one of our survival strategies. I'm so glad it translated in the book. It is a pretty funny book; there is a lot of silliness.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, at one point I remember reading in the book how you guys had created this fantastical sculptures in a place where you were living rent-free but you were putting in a lot of sweat equity. And then a pipe bursts and your - all of your things are flooded with water and then the woman who owned the place went back on her agreement that you could live there and called the police.

And tell me about some of the worst moments that you experienced, times perhaps when you thought that you were safe and thing were getting better and then all of a sudden they just didn't.

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: We made art ourselves and I actually started - me and my mom started a micro-business. I started working on the street when I was 13. So in, like, many case, one time I got sick and I couldn't sell in the street for a whole two weeks and we were right back in the hall. Another time, I broke down (unintelligible),our car, which we needed to survive and, you know, just to get our stuff around.

All of these kind of really subtle things are the kinds of things that actually can ruin people who are holding on by a thread. And it's common actually in the U.S. Because a lot of people who are trying, trying, trying and working, working, working. But if they don't have that access, that back up, that credit - in our case, we didn't have the family to go live with - that's where you're outside, that's how close you are.

CHIDEYA: Now you're leading a very different life. After the saga of dropping out of school in the 6th grade to help care for your mother, after living on the streets, you now help other people through the Poor News Network, which is a news network for people in poverty. What do you want to come out of this book?

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: I want people to understand that it's illegal to be homeless, illegal to be poor in the U.S. I want those laws to change. I want people to understand that people who should be heard and listened to around issues of poverty and racism are the people that experienced themselves.

And I want people to listen to that scholarship and look to different kinds of ways of solving homelessness and poverty, and that's what Poor Magazine is all about. And that's what I'm on this earth to do.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tiny, Lisa…


CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Lisa Gray-Garcia, also known as Tiny, is the author of "Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America." She's also the founder of the Poor News Network. She joined me from KQED in San Francisco.

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