If you listen to National Public Radio, you have probably heard interviews conducted by StoryCorps broadcast on the air. Earlier this month, the 11-year-old nonprofit – which travels across the U.S. collecting oral histories from people of all walks of life – spent five days at the Family Village Lynnwood YWCA speaking to local families about homelessness. Their visit was just one stop in the project “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness,” which features families from Snohomish, Pierce, and King Counties.
One of those interviews was with Helen Johnson, who was at the time living in a shelter with her 13-year-old son Derek after escaping an abusive relationship with her husband.
Helen (who has requested an alias to maintain her family’s privacy) said she ended up homeless after being “cheated by the legal system.” She wanted to speak to StoryCorps because she thinks there needs to be a change in how custody cases are handled. “I’ve never done anything wrong. I never got into drugs, I never committed a crime, and I had my son taken away from me.”
Four years ago, Helen was separated from her son during a custody battle following the divorce with her husband of over 12 years. The two split after Derek’s father had a child with another woman. “He was able to get custody of Derek with the help of my own mother,” Helen explained.
Her ex-husband lived with Derek until this past spring, when he allowed Derek to return to Helen because of problems the boy was having at school. Derek has been diagnosed with PTSD, developmental delay, and autism.
Although Derek’s father won’t surrender custody for fear of paying child support, Derek is now living with Helen full-time and will be entering seventh grade at Brier Terrace Middle School in the fall. “This is the perfect school district for Derek,” Helen said. “He’s good at computers, math, and science. In the STEM program [at Brier Terrace Middle School and Mountlake Terrace High School], he gets to do what he’s good at and gets help with what he’s not.”
The Johnsons took a tour of the middle school last year and met with Derek’s future counselors. His courses next year include a computer game development class and an engineering shop class, in which the students apply math and science to complete real-world assignments like building a clock. Helen is hopeful for Derek’s growth at Brier Terrace. “Derek was having problems in school, and those are all gone now,” she said. Derek says he wants to go into computer science in the future.
The YMCA in nearby Shoreline also offers a special education class for seventh and eighth grade students that the Johnsons will participate in. “It’s the only program of its type that I could find,” Helen said. Derek will be attending on a scholarship that includes bus transportation to and from the classes.
Helen’s recount is just one of 85 interviews StoryCorps recorded in Washington over the past two weeks. StoryCorps Custom Services Manger Michelle Bova says the variety of stories is striking. “The stories we have heard refute the idea that there is a ‘formula’ to determine how a family becomes homeless,” she said. “It can be just one illness that puts the family’s breadwinner out of work and makes the difference between being housed and facing eviction. [On the other hand,] some families who are immigrants find it extremely challenging to obtain living wage work.”
Helen is focusing on moving past her circumstances. “We have the steps in place for a better future,” she said. “I can’t change what happened to myself and my son, but hopefully our story can help make things better for others that are in our shoes. I feel really hopeful about it.”
Since its creation eleven years ago, StoryCorps has conducted interviews with over 95,000 Americans, featuring participants from all 50 states. Those interviews are archived in the Library of Congress and shared with millions of people across the nation on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday morning.
– By Caitlin Plummer