WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jaime Colman, a 2009 Abington Heights High School and 2013 Houghton College graduate, along with fellow Houghton alumnae Hi Uan Kang Haaga,’06, and Heather Hill, ‘08, started February armed with photography equipment, writing utensils and an idea. The trio ended with a month full of faces, stories and experiences that, compiled in a blog titled “29 Stories of February,” provides viewers with a fresh perspective on the issues of homelessness.
The blog, which can be accessed at bit.ly/1pd1F61, garnered attention from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and The Washington Post. It features photographs and stories of not only people who are experiencing homelessness, but also of those who actively work to help the homeless population.
But the project isn’t so much about homelessness as it is about humanity.
“If you read the stories from the blog, you’ll notice that many of our neighbors tell stories that do not even mention their homelessness,” Colman said via email. “One of the many beautiful elements of this project is showing people experiencing homelessness as human beings.”
The Clarks Summit native confessed even as a full-time worker in federal advocacy and event planning for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, this concept isn’t always at the forefront of her mind.
“Many days I feel like a robot as I join the metro march to work, and it is easy to ignore and block out the homeless man right in front of me,” she said. “On days when I do stop, these encounters with people experiencing homelessness refreshingly ease the hum drum and call out the human in me. And I like to think the times that I stop and I am present to them, I too ease the hum drum of the panhandling and the scrounging for food and the bone-chilling cold, and that with a smile and snarky comment about the Redskins, I too call out the human in them.
“It is encounters with people that move us toward causes, and rarely the other way around.”
Colman is a daughter of Jim and Cyndi Colman, of Clarks Summit, and granddaughter of Audrey Walters, of Clarks Summit, and Helen and Richard Colman, of Lake Winola. She earned a BA in sociology and intercultural studies from Houghton College and currently lives and works in the nation’s capital.
She said she got involved in the project when Hill introduced her to Kang Haaga in hopes that because of her work and volunteer experience, she could provide insight about homelessness and connect them with people willing to share their stories.
Other people who collaborated on the project include Charmaine Runes, a research assistant at the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population; and Reverend James Ellis III, senior pastor of Peach Fellowship Church, a nondenominational church in the city.
Colman said one of the biggest challenges of the project was in the re-telling of the stories entrusted to them.
“We collaborators wrestled with the question of, ‘How do we tell these stories without exploiting or over-romanticizing the experience of homelessness?’” she said. “I think this wrestling centered us in our story-telling.”
And for her, the best part about it was interacting with her homeless neighbors.
“Most of the stories I was able to contribute to the project were about friends that I have grown to know over the past two years,” she said. “It was special to share their stories through this project. My one friend Leona pulled out her bright yellow, clip-on earrings for her photo shoot.
“As someone who works for an organization on systemic, policy issues of homelessness, it is my volunteer work with neighbors experiencing homelessness that motivates me. Knowing the stories of Leona, David, Roger, Tom and so on moves me with compassion and spurs my federal advocacy work.”
She said it is her hope that when people in her hometown read the “29 Stories of February,” they also will be compelled to action, stopping to “notice and listen to the ‘other’ around them, whether that is the homeless man in Scranton, the refugee woman in Wilkes-Barre, or single mom in Dickson City.”
“We all have stories,” she said. “Stories bind us as human beings and move us with compassion for one another. Often we avoid people and things that make us uncomfortable or hopeless. ‘29 Stories of February’ also sought to provide some practical solutions for its readers and those who encounter neighbors experiencing homelessness.”