Each month, Wes Browning's newspaper column about homelessness sizzles with satire.
Whether he's pointing out society's prejudices or airing a few of his own, Browning, 47, doesn't pull any punches. The Seattle resident, who graduated from Cornell University with a Ph.D. in math and taught at Rutgers University, has a convenient soapbox as a writer for Real Change, a newspaper for and about the homeless.
Browning also has the background for the job. He has been homeless three times in his life, with the latest episode beginning in June when the janitorial service he worked for went bankrupt. Now, he alternates between sleeping on the kitchen floor at a friend's apartment and on a couch at another friend's business.
"I started writing last year," said Browning, who is a member of the newspaper's editorial board. "Before that, I had concocted stories, but I only told them verbally. Now, I write intellectual, pretentious poems to tell people what they don't read about in newspapers..It's a thrill, and I'm having so much fun."
Browning also is president of the StreetLife Gallery, a cooperative of current and formerly homeless artists in Seattle. Browning began exhibiting his artwork, which focuses on the child abuse he endured from his parents, at the gallery in 1992, about four years after he learned to draw. Browning now paints with acrylics.
The prolific artist, who first became homeless after his parents died about 15 years ago and he began seeing visions, said his work is an expression of bad childhood memories. A recent painting of a dog and a boy with their heads switched depicts how he felt when a parent once asked why he couldn't be more like the dog he owned as a child.
"The public comes into the gallery and is awestruck over all the artwork," Browning said, noting the artists are encouraged by the attention. "And why shouldn't they be? What does homelessness have to do with talent? The art here is about what the people care about. And it lets the viewers realize that these are real people."
Tim Harris, 35, director of Real Change, also understands the importance of affirmation and creative expression. The newspaper, which he started in 1994, has a monthly circulation of 27,000 and is sold on the streets of Seattle by homeless vendors who want to make money. Many of the paper's articles are also written by the homeless.
"When people think of helping the poor and homeless, they usually think of food and shelter," Harris said. "Those things are necessary, but it's more than that. It's the spiritual. The homeless need to express themselves and be a part of the community. It's important that they have human dignity."
Lea Jaroszewski is empowering the homeless on the East Coast through Spare Change, a newspaper for and about the homeless in Boston. Jaroszewski, 32, is editor of the biweekly newspaper, which was started by Harris in 1992 before he moved to Seattle and now has a circulation of 25,000 per printing.
Jaroszewski, who received a master's degree in publishing from Emerson College in Boston, also is no stranger to the topic of homelessness. The journalist became homeless about four years ago when, after covering news in Poland and Afghanistan, she returned to the U.S. and worked as a reporter for a national magazine that eventually folded.
"The arts do for the homeless what they do for anyone," said Jaroszewski, who is still homeless. "It's having a greater involvement in society and the belief your feelings count. It's invaluable for the homeless to participate politically, because they are the most disenfranchised. They are the people who need to communicate the most but are the last to be heard."
To learn more about Wes Browning and to check-out some of his art and poetry at the StreetLife Gallery, visit these sites:
Photos used courtesy of Wes Browning
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