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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home, again

I've been haunted by the significance of home ever since I left for college and my parents sold the house in Virginia where I'd grown up. They moved to away to Massachusetts, and I lost touch with both our old house and the community I'd known all my life. I felt oddly adrift, living in a series of dorms, group houses, and apartments, and didn't completely regain my footing until the mid-1980s, when I bought a bungalow in Seattle.


This year I found myself thinking about the idea of home again. Plymouth Housing in Seattle contracted with me to help write the client profiles for their 2007 annual report. The assignment took me back to a journalistic style of feature writing that I hadn't practiced in some years (though it had once been my favorite work). It also invited me to revisit some of my own feelings about home.

I interviewed five clients for Plymouth (and one for another housing agency, on a related project). After each interview, and in the middle of one or two of them, I found myself in tears.

For each of the people I interviewed reminded me of one of my close friends. As they told their life stories (most with some glorious high points, all with heart-wrenching low points) I could pretty much see where my friends' own paths could easily have led them to homelessness. (And, since writing the articles, I've become aware that a few of my friends have indeed been homeless for brief periods.)

I invite you to take a look at the 2007 annual report (click "2007") and read some of these stories. Another reason to check out the PDF is the beautiful photography by Doug Plummer.

Finally, a few words about the folks at Plymouth Housing and their extraordinary work. Plymouth does not focus on housing for working class families caught in the economic crunch; they focus on housing for individuals — the longterm homeless, the elderly homeless, and the homeless with complex health problems, often associated with substance abuse.

Plymouth is committed to the philosophy that secure housing is the essential first step in addressing the problem of homelessness at both the individual and community level. Think about it: Once you have a safe apartment where you can sleep, wash, cook, store your medications and have clean clothing, suddenly all else becomes at least possible. Plymouth's buildings all have onsite staff whose jobs involve helping residents move to the next steps: Getting health care, detoxing from drugs and alcohol, addressing financial problems, expressing themselves through art and volunteer community service, and seeking employment.

At Plymouth, I met residents who had served in the military, guarded a U.S. embassy, performed with a symphony, and created award-winning paintings and artwork. It was wonderful to discover that in Seattle, thanks to Plymouth, these people have found a home.

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