Esther Altshul Helfgott: The Homeless One
Publisher's Comment ▲
The Homeless One... gives readers an honest and touching look at homelessness and mental illness in our society .... Helfgott shows how homelessness and mental illness are more than political issues-- for these are real people in our neighborhoods, our families, and our lives. As the characters of The Homeless One interact via face-to-face, email, and phone conversation, it becomes clear that everyday communications which might normally be taken for granted are really matters of survival and recovery and are, in fact, our greatest source of hope for creating change. Kara L.C. Jones, Editor, KotaPress.
I love this - so many prisms/dimensions! It's fabulous, you have developed it into a wonderful artistry. Everything that's there takes on meaning from what surrounds it. I enjoy every bit and piece and fragment - they're like jewels or - better - additional voices calling, so that one of the statements from a Homeless agency can allow the Washington Commission on the Hoemeless [or whatever its title is] to take on a perfect callousness and indifference that "speaks" to reveal itself like one of Cinderella's sisters suddenly standing in a pool of garish stage light that takes away her ball dress ...
Also of course the voices together make a powerful political statement/action about our culture's disease, homelessness - which most of us don't think about enough if at all - that listening to you, Genevieve and Crysta helps so much to make Ellen a woman we can begin to understand - it was a real relief to me to read that you too had felt uneasy and scared of the woman in that bathroom/women's room and that you had to go up a floor. Because I am always apprehensive if I meet a homeless person in some closed in space - I seem to feel that I'm going to be attacked - even giving them money on the street sometimes scares me although of course "relieves" me too, as though I had actually helped [like the old woman peeing into the sea] and afterwards I always feel ashamed and have wondered if my guilty feelings aren't part of some cultural brainwashing we've all received. Because it could be so many things gleaming out of those eyes - fever, hunger, fear or a knowledge that I can't know because I'm not there ...
And then there's my astonishment at Genevieve who seems so brave and good - I am so glad you have brought her into my/our recognition - she is such a heroine to me because she seems so accepting even when she gets mad at Ellen. Crysta is fabulous too because she makes schizophrenia come very close - I think all of us feel bits of it inside ourselves - how could we not? living as we do in the culture that produces it. I want to say you have made them more real than they are - or no, you have made them much closer to me as a reader than they ever could have been, because again your voice, questions, caring, brings them closer. They begin to take on a kind of heroism - warrior characteristics. So this has been an amazing read for me. Thank you. AND, I'm so glad it's being performed!!!
It's beautiful; it sings to me.
- Pat Hurshell, Ph.D., English, University of Washington, Seattle
Your little book arrived today and I couldn't set it aside. It is truly wonderful. I love the interweaving of voices and the official language of government and resolution and titles of articles and books. But most of all I love Ellen and Genevieve. Their relationship brings together two women who need each other but never know each other. Really points out the vast distance between people at the psychological level. Beautifully done. Thank you.
- Betsy Bell, poet
From the Author of The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices ▲
Esther Altshul Helfgott, March 13, 2001
I had not planned to write a story about homelessness and schizophrenia, though like most people do in this day and age I read about both problems in the newspapers and in magazines and books. But over a period of about a year, from 1998 to 1999, two points in my life converged in a way that caused me to explore these topics in my written pages, not just in somebody else's. My friend, Genevieve Beach, finally got email, and we began corresponding on a daily basis.
Genevieve is now 88. I first met her in 1987 when she was a student in a Write Your Life Story class that I taught for Seattle Community College's Senior Adult Education Program. Genevieve was also a friend of my mother, Anna (1899-1996), whom she knew through their active involvement in the Seattle Gray Panthers, an organization of young and old working together for social change.
Each morning that Gen and I checked in with each other, she told me about a woman around age 50 who came to her door asking for money, usually once a day but sometimes 2 and 3 times a day. This woman, whom I will call Ellen (as I do in the book), had been coming to Genevieve's house for about 4 years. In all the years I have known Gen, she never mentioned Ellen to me before our email correspondence. (This, in itself, aroused my curiosity. Look what email can do with an otherwise reticent talker). Each time Ellen made an appearance at Genevieve's door, Gen gave her $2, $3, sometimes $5. Then Gen would say, "That's all. I can't give you anymore." But Ellen would come back the next day or the day after that, and the cycle would begin again.
About the same time that this was happening with Genevieve, the health of another friend of mine, the poet, Crysta Casey, 48, who suffers from schizophrenia, began deteriorating. Or, may I say that perhaps I had reached the point in my relationship with Crysta that I could no longer bear the illness that was causing her to burn herself, the illness that was, essentially, pushing her toward taking her own life. I needed to find out, in as much as was possible, what schizophrenia was doing to her mind, how it was that voices could order her to commit an act of self-mutilation.
I had already gone to her psychiatrist with her. He gave me the usual answers: schizophrenia is a disease she will have the rest of her life. She may learn how to control it with medication, but the schizophrenia is not going away. This was not the answer I wanted, so I asked Crysta outright to tell me about the voices, to tell me exactly what they say to her. And over the telephone and sometimes at my house, during the course of about a month, words formed into sentences and I had a better sense of what happens to Crysta when she "gets sick," that is, when she gets to the point of wanting to burn herself.
During the course of my conversations with Crysta, I learned that she had once been close to homelessness. I also learned, through questioning Genevieve, that Ellen was schizophrenic. That is when my writing took over. I began interspersing email conversations I had with Genevieve with conversations I had with Crysta. I had no idea that I was writing a story, poem or play. But that is what came about: all three.
The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices was published in 2000 by Kota Press. StreetWrites, The Seattle Homeless Women's Writing Workshop founded by writer Anitra Freeman has performed The Homeless One in shelters and churches, at Antioch University, Seattle and at The Mae West Women Playwrights Festival. The Drama Department at Seattle Community College has presented The Homeless One as Reader's Theatre, and I look forward to further presentations.
What started out as a personal quest for information has turned into a means of disseminating knowledge about homelessness and schizophrenia. My hope is that teachers and actors will read, discuss and enact The Homeless One for the purpose of creating awareness about people who are generally misunderstood.
The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices by Esther Altshul Helfgott
Reviewed by Ruth Fox
The needs of mentally ill homeless are important, though widely over-looked. They are needs that will persist until the cause of mental illness is faced and dealt with collectively. The Homeless One, by Seattle writer Esther Altshul Helfgott, is a book-length poem for voices that portrays how these issues affect us all. The strength of Helfgott's work rests upon the truths of those she knows and with whom she interacts. The use of the direct voice personalizes the issues, allowing us to hear the thoughts and feelings of some very real people.
Crysta (a formerly homeless schizophrenic) and Genevieve (an elderly woman besieged for handouts by Ellen — the homeless one) struggle to cope with the deep emotions that are evoked when trying to really confront the homeless one's situation. The Homeless One tackles complex issues, most notably the lack of effective long-term solutions to truly rebuild the losses that have created what Ms. Helfgott aptly terms society's disease of the forgotten and ignored mentally ill and homeless people that we try to shut out of our communities.
Genevieve and Ellen represent the heart of the dilemma. Genevieve reflects the housed who feel frightened and helpless, and would rather not look at Society's disease. Yet as a show of compassion, she gives small handouts to ease its symptoms. Ellen represents the nagging symptoms that just won't let up, no matter how many handouts are given.
There is no way you could read this work and not identify and respond to what the characters are feeling, given the range of viewpoints and emotional expression that have been woven together.
Esther Helfgott has surfaced the unheard voices in our society, going beyond sentiment to human emotions that require response. This book is not only written words: it is a living action, asking for action in return.
The homeless one's needs will persist until the cause of mental illness is faced. Only then will there be a lasting change in our society. Helfgott's poem is a most welcome step in this process.
Published in Real Change, Seattle's Homeless Newspaper, 2000, 2129 2nd
Ave., Seattle WA 98121
Copyrightę2003, 2004: Esther Altshul Helfgott
originally published by Kota Press, Seattle, WA. 1999, 2000
Cover graphics and design by Harry Jones
Webdesign: Rudolf Suesske: June 2004