A writing group at Mary’s Place, a shelter for women, children and families, led to a book, “Original Voices,” and the authors invite the public to hear them read at a library event on Sept. 12.

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Earlier this month, and in the span of a few days, a King County task force proposed opening safe-consumption sites for homeless addicts, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray hired the city’s first Cabinet-level director of homelessness.

At the same time, groups proposed reforms in the way the city sweeps unsanctioned homeless camps.

I wonder how much we know of the community for which we have spent so much time and tax money — and which, every day, tests the temperature of our hearts.


Reading: ‘Original Voices’

7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12, meeting room, Seattle Public Library University Branch, 5009 Roosevelt Way; free (spl.org)

Julie Gardner gets it. She used to pick up her pace when she passed someone living on the streets. Pressed her purse close to her side. Averted her eyes.

But after a meeting with Marty Hartman, the executive director at Mary’s Place, Gardner started hosting a writing group at the shelter, urging the women there to tell their stories. To write.

“We cry, we laugh, but it’s all about the writing,” Gardner told me the other day. “And every week, my beliefs are challenged.”

The result is “Original Voices,” a collection of essays and poems edited by Gardner, a writer trained in early-childhood education and who has led support groups for people with mental illness. The book is available on Amazon.

On Sept. 12, Gardner will accompany some of the women to the Seattle Public Library’s University Branch, where they will read their work.

“I know about the healing power of writing,” Gardner said, “that it crosses all sorts of barriers.”

It also helps to shatter stereotypes about the homeless, and puts a face on the politics surrounding the issue.

“They’re our neighbors, just like us,” she said. “You can’t put them in a box. There’s no one story that fits.”

Gardner, who grew up in California and Kansas, had no experience with homeless people until she worked at a regional human-services center in North Dakota. Even then, she said, “There were only 52 homeless people in the state.”

So imagine how different it was when she came to Seattle.

“I was in culture shock,” she said of the homeless population here — one so large that Murray earlier this year declared a state of emergency on the issue.

“We don’t want to be numb to it,” Gardner said. “But we don’t know what to do.”

In the writing group, most of the women are eager to read aloud what they’ve written. They want to be heard.

Others hesitate to give feedback, Gardner said: “They feel like their opinions never mattered.”

Still others come just to sit and write in the quiet.

“Homelessness is noisy,” Gardner said. Shelters are communal, and most time is spent outside in the thrum and bang of the city.

Gardner, too, has been comforted. The group helped her get through her husband’s recent battle with cancer.

“They’ve done a lot for me, let me tell you,” she said. “But this isn’t about me or Mary’s Place. This is about meeting women who have experienced homelessness.”

(She never says, “homeless woman,” explaining, “You don’t say, ‘condo woman’ or ‘house woman,’ do you?”)

One woman named M.J. wrote a poem addressing just that:

“Don’t judge me by how

I look.

I’m educated

I’m smart

I’m funny.”

Others wrote about the joy of silence, summer camp, acts of kindness and their struggle with spirituality.

“This is not about homelessness at all,” Gardner said. “It’s about joy, pain, beauty, faith and determination. Being published, seeing that your words matter, is very empowering.”

Gardner is a little worried that the library event will turn into another battle of words, that the women’s writing will be drowned out by those who come to hear it — and use the time to debate the issue and the city’s response.

This isn’t the time for that, Gardner said.

“My hope is that people will be gracious,” she said. “It’s not an event for advocacy. It’s an event for these women and their beautiful words.

“So many people speak for them,” she said. “Here, they speak for themselves.”