Storytelling and advocacy training for the homeless

Jules Plumadore and Terri Byrne, facilitators of the homeless speaker program. They are from the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

by Jill Forman

An innovative speaker training event took place July 16 and 17 in our town. Homeless and previously-homeless persons attended, learning how to speak in public and advocate for themselves. These future activists want a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Sixteen participants met at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura for this workshop, sponsored by Lift Up Your Voice (LUYV,) the church’s advocacy group. McCune Foundation generously sponsored the event.

Mental Health Association of San Francisco Training Institute supplied two guides, Terri Byrne and Jules Plumadore, who drove down to facilitate. Both have mental health histories; Jules has experienced homelessness. Their experiences and compassion made them ideal educators.

Additional funding was provided by LUYV and by Brian Gellato, whose poetry about homelessness has been featured in this paper.

Participants were driven to the church by volunteers, given breakfast and lunch. Fourteen were homeless or in temporary situations; the others were on-site pastors of a transitional living facility who hope to share this training. A 4-month-old baby came with his mother, adding occasional commentary. And a well-behaved dog named Sunshine.

Monday included introductions and some life stories. One attendee said, “I was surprised how emotional it was.” They discussed the stigma of homelessness, and community perceptions which affect their behavior, then started working on 3-minute presentations.

On Tuesday, Terri and Jules praised the group for coming up with good ideas. It is important, they stressed, to generate communities who are willing to speak in public and have their opinions known. Voting was a point; a speaker is more credible saying, “I vote.”

Mental illness was an significant topic; both a contributing cause and a result of homelessness due to trauma, illness, abuse and PTSD. Jules talked about different therapies and how vital it is to have access to all of them.

Terri led a dialogue on self-care for speakers: preparation, practice, timing, pauses, feedback, don’t be too hard on yourself, thank everybody, “let it go.” At this point the UU minister, Dana Worsnop, sat in for a while listening and then spoke briefly to reassure them that she, too, is “…nervous…every time…it’s okay.”

Five participants presented on varied topics: showers, harassment, city-sponsored homeless encampments, up to 10-year wait for low-income housing (yes, TEN years!), difficulty getting jobs. The group gave what is termed “strength-based feedback”: positive aspects of the speech, followed by something like “I would love to know more about…” or “I would like to hear…”

What did everyone think of this experience? One person said, “…what I’m taking from this is hope…that my voice can be heard…not something I would ever have been seeking.” Sue, a volunteer, believed, “This can help give a face to homelessness.” Jules, the trainer, “…love to train…renews my faith in the work that I do.”

One speaker hoped that both speakers and listeners could “…leave…with a bigger heart and a bigger soul.”

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