Spare Change News
Georgia Saunders’ “Home Street Home: The Virginia Beach Chronicles” can be best described in one word: raw.
Raw are the stories she tells about the life of a homeless person. Raw are the tensions that build when people who can’t stand each other are forced to depend on each other. Raw are the pressures of wanting to help others who are suffering, quashed only by one’s own need to get by. Through numerous anecdotes, Saunders paints a picture that evokes cathartic understanding from all who are homeless and strong sympathy from all who are human.
Without a doubt, the highlights of the reading experience were insights about homelessness and in-jokes that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. For example, calling the van from the shelter to the mental health center the “druggy buggy”, because the patrons buy and sell drugs, made me laugh a little while painting a vivid picture of what we all know happens but rarely consider in depth.
The story predominantly follows Ella, a protagonist designed to be the proverbial everyman of homeless men and women. In short but sweet chapters, Ella carries on through her day-to-day existence and tells little stories, each about a day in the life of a different homeless person. And not every homeless person Ella meets is your stereotypical drug-abusing bum; many are homeless due to downsizing in the economy or just a few missed opportunities. But in Ella’s eyes, most stories aren’t so much about the person, but the circumstance of being homeless – the stories don’t focus on how people got there, but rather on what they do once they are there.
And Saunders knows her stuff. The author grew up on the streets of Virginia, and lived with most of the people she writes about. And if her experiences weren’t enough to verify the reality of her words, the footnotes will tell you that some of these stories of characters, like Blondie, come directly from writings in that person’s own diaries.
There were a few points where I wish Saunders’ writing style did less telling and more showing, like the fight scene in chapter four. Instead of saying who did what to whom and where, the author merely says “he attacked her” or “she attacked him back”, over and over. And character descriptions were in a similar fashion – just saying that someone was a bad man left me wondering why he was bad. For the most part, the author relies on the assumption that specific details in scenes like these aren’t necessary to anyone who’s seen the struggles of homelessness firsthand. If her target audience is other homeless people, I suppose I’d be inclined to agree; even so, more details to flesh out the writing would have drawn me in a little more.
But Saunders does not sugarcoat or censor the experience in any way. Conversations between homeless people cover everything, from the daily life of a homeless person to politics. One scene depicts a character named Benny attempting to convince his friends that 9/11 was an inside job. Other scenes involve homeless men freezing to death, or the impact of the economy on homeless shelters. These stories can make someone who’s never been homeless feel like he or she is the one who is truly sheltered (excuse the pun).
And so, I would say that while some readers may not enjoy the book, most readers should at least give it a try. It is rare that you can find such an encompassing rendition of different homeless lives, and, for the common lower-middle class citizens and above, it is rare that we have the opportunity to really know what the other side lives like. This book is not just an opportunity to educate oneself – it is an opportunity to learn sympathy for those who only seem different from their average-income brethren. And for other homeless people, it is rare that their story is told so well.
CHALKEY HORENSTEIN is a Spare Change News writer and editorial assistant.