When most people see a homeless person on the street, they either give them a few cents and then continue with their day or just pass right by them. Lauren Purnell, a student at Rowan College of Burlington County, takes out her pen and notebook and asks the question most people are afraid to ask: “Why are you homeless?”
As a journalism student, Purnell first started interviewing homeless individuals to gain experience that would add to her resume, but her project has since expanded to mean something more. She now runs a blog titled “Naming The Homeless” with her mother, Kathy, in an effort to break the stereotypes surrounding the homeless community.
Michele Mendez: How did you come up with Naming The Homeless?
Lauren Purnell: My journalism professor recommended that we start a blog to get some experience and build our skill sets. I wanted my blog to be something that could progress, so I started to think about things that I cared about. I’ve always been an activist for the homeless, so I decided to build my blog around that, and that’s how I came up with Naming The Homeless.
MM: Did you ever believe some of the stereotypes surrounding the homeless community?
LP: I was aware of the stereotypes, but I never really connected them to people. You don’t know someone’s stories until you ask them, and that is something that I learned at a very young age.
MM: How did you approach your parents with the idea, and what were their initial reactions?
LP: After I came up with the idea, I texted my mom and asked if she would be my partner because I wasn’t comfortable doing it myself. She said yes, and now she helps with running the social media sites, developing interview questions and putting together the care packages. She’s there with me at every interview.
MM: How did you feel going into your first interview?
LP: I was nervous because I am not a people person at all. It was hard the first time because you’re just walking up to a complete stranger and asking them to tell you their life story. We ended up approaching a woman named Dora, and she was so nice.
She wanted us to do something to help the homeless, and I told her about my blog, and she got excited and jumped right into the interview herself.
MM: What are people’s reactions when you ask for an interview? Have you ever been turned down?
LP: People are generally accepting of the idea, and we never had anybody turn down an interview. As I mentioned, the first person that we met was a woman named Dora. I told her that I was a journalism student, and she said, “Please do something for the homeless.” I told her about my blog, and we did the interview right away.
Constance was indifferent about it and just went along with it, and Chaz wanted to share his story and help in any way that he could. The last one that we did last week was in Camden, and the woman said that she wasn’t comfortable with it at first, but after telling her that she didn’t have to give her name or anything that would identify her, she was on board.
MM: Is there a particular individual who has impacted you the most?
LP: They’ve all left their mark on me. When I leave them, I feel sad because I wish that I could do more for them than just put their story out there and offer them a care package, but it’s something. Chaz meant a lot to me because he was doing something productive while he was out on the streets.
He would go out and collect stray cats with a friend of his who was also homeless, and they would carry them around with them and find them homes. There’s also Jeanette, who just had a really rough life altogether, but she was so positive and upbeat when she was talking to us that you wouldn’t be able to tell by just looking at her.
MM: You said that you’ve tried to get in contact with a few people again. Have you been successful?
LP: No, because people will sit in the same spot at times, but they’ll also rotate, so its difficult to get in contact. We did try to find Constance again, but she wasn’t in the same spot as she was originally.
Then we went to Chaz’s spot, and we didn’t see him either, so we traveled a little farther down and asked some workers at a pet shop if they knew who he was, and they said they had seen him three weeks ago.
It was a little concerning and disappointing that we weren’t able to get in touch with him, but we left our contact information with the people who worked there in case they did see him. We also printed out a story for him and wrote comments on it that people had written for him so he could see the impact that he had on the people who read his story.
We never did get a call back, but he did tell me that he was in a housing program, so I’m hoping that came together for him and that he was actually housed instead of the alternative.
MM: How important is it for you to reunite with some of the people you met?
LP: I like to do it because after talking to someone for even 20 minutes, I feel as if I know them because they are telling me these things that are so important in their lives and what brought them to where they are today. I hope not to see them on the streets.
I’d rather see them in a better position, but just to see them again to see if they’re doing okay or to see that they are one step ahead to getting themselves back into a home would be something that would be really important to me.
MM: In your most recent post, you brought along your younger sister, Jasmine. What are her feelings about what you do?
LP: At first, my mom and I were hesitant to bring her with us to an interview, but we finally let her come along because it was the holidays, and we wanted to take her to the Christmas Village. Jasmine was really excited and kept asking me if she could make her own questions. She finally came up with “Have you ever been interviewed before?”
That day, we did an interview with Andy, who was very nice and joked with us the entire time and often pulled my sister into our conversations. She took notes the entire time, and at the end, she finally asked her question. It was really cool for her to be a part of it and to see how it impacted her.
MM: Can you tell me more about the care packages and the GoFundMe page?
LP: When I first started doing this, I actually didn’t have any plans to start a GoFundMe page or to accept donations because I thought I could do it on my own, but after doing the second interview, I realized that it wouldn’t be possible. I shared the project on Facebook, and people reached out to us about donations, and that’s how we started the GoFundMe.
The donations go directly toward the care packages, which consist of: snacks, socks, scarves, gloves, notebooks, pens, combs, hair ties, deodorant, shampoo, a loaf of bread, a jar of jelly and peanut butter and some plastic utensils. We also put in hand sanitizer, which is always the first thing that people pull out.
MM: How has the blog given you experience as a journalism student?
LP: It helped me develop my interview skills. Originally, I went into interviews with a list of questions, but now I don’t even need to look at them anymore. I would talk to the person as more of a conversation. It also helped me with my communication skills.
As I said, I’m not really a people person, but now I have the ability to go up to someone who I don’t know and initiate a meaningful conversation with them.
MM: What would you like to say to people who may feel uncomfortable around homeless individuals because of the stereotypes surrounding them?
LP: You don’t have to go up to someone and have a conversation with them if you feel uncomfortable, but just know that the slightest act of kindness might be enough to give that person the confidence to get back on their feet.
MM: What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about the homeless population since starting your blog?
LP: You never know the reason why people are out on the streets until you talk to them and give them the chance to explain themselves. Every single person that we spoke to had a different reason why they were pushed into the lifestyle of being homeless. No one chooses to be homeless.