Ex-Homeless Speak Out To Change Perceptions A speakers bureau in Washington, D.C., is encouraging people to think about homelessness from a first-person view. "My life was just to survive on the streets," one speaker says.
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Ex-Homeless Speak Out To Change Perceptions

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Ex-Homeless Speak Out To Change Perceptions

Ex-Homeless Speak Out To Change Perceptions

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A typical speakers bureau can provide a celebrity, a politician, or a pundit to address groups of people. It'll cost thousands of dollars. But for only 40 bucks, you might be able to get a far more compelling talk.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports on a speakers bureau made up of men and women who are or have been homeless.

PAM FESSLER: If you get only two things out of these talks, it'll probably be this. One, almost anyone can be homeless. And two, be nice. Don't treat homeless people like dirt.

Mr. JOHN HARRISON: Seemed like all of a sudden, people walked by me like I wasn't even there.

FESSLER: Today, John Harrison has the ruddy good looks of someone who might spend time on a sailboat - mid-50s, salt and pepper hair, khakis, white button-down shirt. Instead, he's still struggling to get back on his feet after years of homelessness. He's sharing his story with a Jewish youth group that's visiting Washington, D.C.

Mr. HARRISON: I remember going into a restaurant to get what I called a two-for-one. And the two-for-one, for the person experiencing homelessness, is the warmth and the food for the price of the food. And so, I was optimistic, they took my order. But when they brought me my food, it was to go. Because that was the message, go.

FESSLER: The teens came into the room laughing and joking. Now, they're mesmerized.

Harrison is one of 350 men and women in a speakers bureau run by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Mr. GEORGE SILETTI: I grew up in foster care. You know what foster care is?

FESSLER: George Siletti is another one. He's talking to some human rights fellows from Europe, working on Capitol Hill.

Siletti tells them he became homeless at 16, when he was allowed to leave a boy's home. He had no money or food. Two weeks later, he was still sleeping in the woods behind the home.

Mr. SILETTI: I had literally nothing. No life skills, no job skills, no nothing. So my life was just to survive on the streets. Well, this happened for 30 years of my life.

FESSLER: Siletti says he's been homeless everywhere, except Alaska. He eventually got help from a nonprofit, including medicine for his mental illness and epilepsy, and finally a place to live. Today, Siletti boasts that he even gets junk mail.

Mr. SILETTI: I am no longer isolated homeless person. I am no longer called weird names - crazy, psycho and all that. I'm called George, and I feel well-accepted. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. NATALIE CHWALISZ: This was fantastic because it was really personable stories.

FESSLER: Natalie Chwalisz is from Germany. She had tears in her eyes listening to some of the stories.

Ms. CHWALISZ: Because you're not used to seeing it in Europe. So it's hard to learn this and see how people just walk by.

FESSLER: And it's not just walking by. Speakers say sometimes homeless people have urine and feces thrown at them. The National Coalition for the Homeless is an advocacy group, but the agenda here is mostly educational. Speakers address religious groups, government agencies, even medical schools to help new doctors learn about the homeless.

The teenagers listening to John Harrison have questions of their own.

Unidentified Man #1: What were you thinking about as you were trying to fall asleep on the concrete?

Mr. JOHN HARRISON: Boy, that's easy, nothing because I was so exhausted just getting through whatever day it was.

FESSLER: Harrison says homelessness snuck up on him. He had a good family, good job, but then came some unfortunate events and bad decisions. He lost the job, then his house burned down. He didn't have insurance, so he lived in his car until that broke down.

He says he struggled to figure out how to survive. It was the little things that gave him hope.

Mr. HARRISON: People who, you know, reached out to me with genuine concern and said: Hey, how are you doing, you know, and meant it.

FESSLER: Harrison told me after his speech that he now has a place to live and two part-time jobs. He says his homelessness is in remission, like a disease. These talks are part of the recovery.

Mr. HARRISON: I feel like people experiencing homelessness are just part of the landscape and that everybody's okay with it just being the way things are.

FESSLER: He'll get forty bucks for this talk, but says what he really wants is people to change their minds.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2: Very motivational.

Mr. HARRISON: All right, thanks for listening.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you so much.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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