I saw homeless people every day, because to me they weren’t invisible. I got hooked on audio podcasts because I liked to listen. And then I had an idea.
By Robert Duff ’10
I found Sean standing next to a stop sign, holding a handwritten cardboard sign asking for help. He had a shopping cart next to him with all of his belongings and looked young, maybe 19 or 20. Here in Ventura, there is a wide spectrum of individuals living on the streets, and one of the goals of my podcast, The Voices Among Us, is to make that clear.
For the unfamiliar, podcasts are essentially radio talk shows without the radio. You download episodes from the Internet and listen to them on your own time via a mobile device like an iPhone. I had no interest in podcasts until 2010, when I moved to Ventura with my wife and then began graduate school in Santa Barbara. While burning up gas on the hourlong commute, I soon realized how interesting, funny and touching they truly could be.
Last winter, I bought a used USB microphone from a creepy man in a trailer park in Los Angeles and began my quest to share the voices of homeless people, with anyone willing to listen. Nearly every week now, I sit with a homeless person at a coffee shop or right on the curb and ask them questions about their lives. I have had interviews with elderly people and teenagers, people with stories of abuse and abandonment, and others who have chosen the streets due to some internal sense of restlessness.
I learned from Sean that he was originally from the United Kingdom and came to America with his parents. The father and son ran their family-owned skate shop together in Long Beach until Sean’s mother died. Sean was fairly well known as an in-line skater, having competed since he was 10. The way he tells it, his mother’s death changed everything. His father finally abandoned him, and he found himself on the streets.
He was hardly alone. On any routine trip to the grocery store or to the beach in Ventura, I see five to 10 individuals standing on the street, asking for money. Although I have been exposed to homeless people all of my life in Southern California, having this constant reminder of the issue began to stir feelings within me. I wanted to make a difference in some way, while maintaining my own well-being. I knew I would go broke very quickly if I were to help people with my own money as often as I would like to.
After hearing Sean’s story, I searched the Internet for his old skate shop, Urban Rolling. I discovered not only Web pages about the shop, but also interviews with Sean and YouTube videos of his skating. It blew my mind that someone could fall so far in a matter of months.
I reached out to some people who had interviewed Sean to see if they were aware of his situation. Many people on a roller blading message board turned out to know Sean and soon offered to help in any way possible. Over the next few months, he was showered with care packages and donations from all over the United States. Before Sean and I stopped communicating, I was able to use donated money to buy a ticket on his behalf and send him to Orlando, where he went to live and work with old friends.
More than anything, I hope the stories on The Voices Among Us inspire people to not look the other way. No one is less human for living on the streets. Take the time to listen, and you will learn something. I’ve learned about this issue, about life and even about myself from doing the podcast, possibly more than I’ve learned from any other activity.
Robert Duff is working toward a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His blog and links to The Voices Among Us podcasts are available at www.homelessinterview.com.
Email ideas and submissions for Vocations to firstname.lastname@example.org.