Here is an interview with Danny Heggen, the author of From a Growing Community, Iowa Homeless Youth. This interview will explore his heart for writing the book, and encourage us to check ours.
1. When did you decide to write the book?
This idea actually came to me as I was standing in Easter Mass in March 2008. Strangely, this was exactly three years after I'd written my first poem (I originally wanted to be a poet -- still do). But in 2008, as I was standing there trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life after graduation, I had this huge "duh" moment.
I'd just returned home from a study abroad experience in Perth, Australia back in December 2007 -- where my collection of stories from women in prison was published (Voices on the Inside: the Women of Boronia, published by Curtin University Press, Nov. 2007). And I wanted to start a new writing project. So, upon starting my last semester at Simpson, I started volunteering at a homeless youth shelter with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers. I'd been writing short stories about all the things I heard while volunteering, but I hadn't even thought of trying to replicate the process of reproducing stories as I'd done in that prison until that Easter morning.
Short story long: March 2008. Then I had to save money so I could spend a few months working on it full time. The writing process began in mid-August 2008.
2. What caused you to write the book?
My experience in the women's prison. As I sat and interviewed those women, I continually heard: "When I'd get released from prison, I'd hit the streets, find a shelter, and hang out there until I recommitted." So I became interested in what shelter systems were all about and what they offered. That's the main reason I started volunteering at a homeless shelter when I returned home from Australia. The reason I focused on youth: if we can help them when they're younger, there may be a better chance at keeping them off the streets when they're older.
Now, I've realized it's not just enough to only help teenage crowds. We need to notice when young parents with infant children are struggling. Falling into homelessness can have an incredibly traumatic effect on children as young as two.
3. Has writing the book affected your view on homelessness in Iowa?
I've heard and seen too much to remain unaffected. No longer can I close my eyes or ears to a someone passing by on the street, standing in a welfare line, or walking through a food pantry line. You want to experience this full-on in our community? Serve at a food pantry. It's heartbreaking to run out of food when there are still people in line and to know you personally could have spent five more dollars to buy enough produce to send all of these families home with food.
And, as the stories in the book demonstrate, this is a very complicated issue. It's not just drug or alcohol abuse these youth struggle with. It's the part of their story that took place before that addiction. And it's the part of their story they're trying to figure out now. Piles and piles of abnormal experiences only make life complicated for them, and this is their life, and this is what is normal.
4. Did you face any challenges writing the book?
Trying to support myself. Over the course of this project (which includes right now), I've lived on a budget lower than half of the poverty line. I've delivered pizzas, worked at a dry-cleaners, and painted houses to make all my bill payments. And it's been so much fun to learn how to live within my means! But it's pretty depressing to go places where I can't afford anything. Since this whole time I've been volunteering in shelters though, I get free meals, and I've also been earning donated bread.
On the artistic and business side of things, convincing the shelters I was qualified to write this book was a hurdle. And fundraising the money to afford the first print was a whole different kind of challenge. I learned how to grant write. And I put a lot of faith in the community of people surrounding me -- one huge blessing. It's been awesome to experience this whole thing with a group of friends who supported me mentally and encouraged me to keep moving forward when I couldn't figure out little pieces.
5. “ If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.” (James 2:16) What does this verse mean to you in light of writing the book?
Bare with me as I get to your answer through this tangent: At the start of this project, a mentor of mine told me, "Danny, don't do this alone." I didn't know what that really meant at the time. Now, as I look back, it was a time for me to accept that my spiritual gifts do not include visual art, so I needed to find someone who could assist me with this. That's when Justin Norman and I crossed paths -- he's one of the many of my awesome roommates. I had no idea of who he was at the time. And he didn't know who I was. But as soon as I started talking to him about this project, he offered to help, and immediately he took my vision and made it his own, which was a huge relief for me. I didn't have to work alone anymore. I had someone to throw ideas by. And, I got to focus on my personal gifts: listening, writing, and speaking.
So in the context of this verse, "one of you" must refer to one who has in relation to one who has not -- obviously the Lord continually blesses those who are obedient and act according to His will. Thus, when you encounter another who could use what you have to better their situation, you ought to give what you have, for the Lord has given you more than enough to share. You don't have to. But I feel "ought" is a key word, which I've learned a lot about, and it goes back to spiritual gifts and using what the Lord blesses. You become aware of what you can offer, and you develop who you are in relation to the rest of the world through turning this awareness into action.
So, in the context of this project, I've learned so much about giving an ear and voice to those who need to talk (the homeless) and those who need to hear (those who live and work outside this issue). And thanks to Justin, I had time to develop those and take focused action.
Learning about what we're able to offer is one step, but acknowledging that we cannot remain unmoved is the next, and that's development. And we develop who we are, we take action through what the Lord has blessed us with. IE: Feeding the poor when we have enough food; writing a book about homeless youth when we know we can -- we just have to do it.
I hope that kind of answered your question...
6. What do you hope to achieve through the book?
I hope people realize what's going on in our own backyard. I hope shelters gain a new kind of support, a support from our surrounding community they have never experienced. And, I hope our work on this book demonstrates what can happen when a small group of people bring their minds together and move in a focused manner, because we can all do this in different forms concerning different things! We just have to move and work together -- there's a wonderful community of people all around us, we just need to learn how to ask for help.
7. In your opinion, how can we best help and love the homeless community?
We need to learn about who these men, women, and children are. It's easy to talk about them as "an issue" or a percentage. It's not easy to talk about them as an uncle or father or mother or whatever. Also, when spending time with them in shelters or wherever, we need to talk to them and let them know we think of them as people who have hearts and like baseball and pizza and politics and God.
It pains me to watch a volunteer group come in, prepare a meal, serve the meal, and then stand in the kitchen as the men, women, and children eat. When's the last time you invited friends over for dinner, cooked them a meal, and then stood in the kitchen and watched them enjoy what you prepared?
9. In your opinion, how have we failed in helping and loving the homeless community?
We don't look at them as friends who need time and patience to develop relationships with. Relationships I developed with those around me didn't just happen. I had to call them, hangout with them, forgive them, ask for forgiveness myself, treat them like a human being, etc. To love and to be loved, that old story.
10. What do you feel is the role of the church in helping the homeless?
Everything as a church shouldn't be focused on the homeless. But, as a church matures as a body, it should move it's thinking away from "how do we help ourselves" to "how to do we help others" -- as someone does when they realize the world doesn't revolve around them. The homeless are a pretty good crowd of people to reach out to -- because they have an "obvious" appearance. But not every homeless person is without God. I've met quite a few practicing Christians. And you should hear their prayers. I don't know if I've ever heard someone speak from the heart so well.
But, as a church body moves, with all of its different parts, some awesome things can be accomplished within a community. To get the body to move together, however, can be difficult -- some people like to talk and figure everything out, while others just like to take action and then reflect on how things could have gone better. (I'm that second kind of person, if you haven't figured that out. Rarely, do I start a debate in my head until afterwards. I can reflect on how to be more efficient that way.)
11. If readers could take away only one thought from reading the book, what would want that to be?
I could do this, too -- but expressed in a different way, through my own gifts.
12. Also feel free to add anything at all you would like to about the book.
This book needs all of our help to have an impact on our community. We're all going to witness this effect on the shelter systems in our home community. How awesome is that?
You can get a copy of From a Growing Community, Iowa Homeless Youth at http://www.shriekingtree.com/growingcommunity/.
For more information on Iowa Homeless Youth check out the Iowa Homeless Youth website. http://www.yss.ames.ia.us/ihyc/index.html