VANCOUVER, Wash. – Dec. 21 is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day – an event launched in 1990 by the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Consumer Advisory Board and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and honored in cities and towns across the country with annual vigils and services.
In 2000, Seattle upped the ante on the annual vigil. Since then, homeless and formerly homeless activists with Seattle’s Women in Black movement have held more than 400 vigils – standing in silent protest each time a person has died homeless in their community.
Seattle’s Women in Black and the deaths of homeless people in one of the “most livable” cities in the United States are central foci of the book “No Room of her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance,” written by Desiree Hellegers, associate professor of English and a founding co-director of the Center for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver.
The book, published by Palgrave Macmillan in September, is based on extended interviews with 15 women gathered over the course of nearly 20 years. The book illuminates the physical challenges of homelessness on bodies already compromised by arthritis, high blood pressure, stroke, sickle cell anemia and the harrowing conditions, including routine threats of sexual and physical violence, that confront “the other one percent” of Americans.
Hellegers’ work on homelessness dates back to her volunteer work as an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., shelters. In the mid-1980s, she spent a year working and living at a shelter for women and children in Seattle.
But beginning with her first experience of standing with Women in Black following the 2006 murder of Douglas Dawson, a 51-year-old amputee who was sleeping on the streets of Spokane when he was set on fire in his wheelchair, Women in Black opened a new window for Hellegers into the potentially lethal consequences of spending even a single night homeless in the United States.
“This man only had one leg and they set him on fire,” said Mona Joyner, one of the activist-narrators in “No Room of her Own.” “This is what society has become. When you get burned to death in a wheelchair, that’s just as low as it can go.”
“‘No Room of her Own’ will take its place next to Liebow’s ‘Tell Them Who I Am’ as a definitive contemporary human document on the lives of homeless women,” said Mitch Duneier, Maurice P. During professor of sociology at Princeton University.
“Some of my deepest conversations have been with wise homeless sisters of all colors on the underside of America yet they have a rich understanding of America. Don’t miss this book!” said Cornel West, Princeton University.
Hellegers is also the author of “Handmaid to Divinity: Natural Philosophy, Poetry and Gender in Seventeenth-Century England” (2000).
- Seattle’s WHEEL and Women in Black: Organizing to Resist the Lethal Consequences of Homelessness