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Poet Takes Role in Solving Homeless Problem: She's Been There

September 29, 1989|PENELOPE MOFFET | Penelope Moffet is a free-lance writer

Although she's never had to sleep on the streets, Laguna Beach poet Terry Kennedy has known the pain of being poor, unemployed and homeless.

Kennedy's early-1988 bout with homelessness was brief (she and her husband were given housing by a friend she calls "my godmother," and they eventually acquired an apartment of their own), but the experience left a deep imprint on the poet.

Now a part-time community college instructor and free-lance writer, Kennedy still struggles to make ends meet. Today, however, she lives in a gracious apartment with her husband, fiction writer Mark Miller. For the past eight months Kennedy has also been involved with the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force.

"When I was finally hired back as a teacher and a writer, I felt so grateful. I was just so grateful that I had a roof over my head, and I wanted to help other people," she said.

As chair of the Community Education Committee of the task force, Kennedy has researched and written a report on the need to create affordable housing in Orange County.

And as part of her work to raise public consciousness about homeless people's problems, she's organized a free "Homeless Awareness Reading" for Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. in Laguna's Heisler Park. At least 12 poets will read poems on a variety of themes.

"We're not raising money, just hopefully people will pass by and hear some poems and want to get involved in some way," Kennedy said. The kickoff speaker will be Scott Mather, chair of the California Homeless Coalition. Orange County poets Marcia Cohee, John Brugaletta and Lee Mallory, San Fernando Valley poets Sylvia Rosen and Nancy Shiffrin, Long Beach writer John Brander and others will perform.

Subtitled "A Shake-Up Wake-Up Out of Your Apathy Poetry Reading," the event is sponsored by the California Poets for the Poor. That group consists, basically, of one person: Kennedy.

Kennedy is a short, vivacious woman who speaks passionately--with audible exclamation points--about most things that draw her interest. The idea for the "Homeless Awareness Reading" came from her desire to somehow make a difference in public consciousness about homelessness.

"Being a poet, you do have a responsibility to awaken this spiritual part of people," said Kennedy, who's the author of three published books of poetry. "That's what poetry is about, it's about awakening this spirit in people, this giving, loving, generous spirit. . . . People on the street are not second-class citizens. They deserve a roof over their heads, and they deserve respect."

Father Colin Henderson is the director of Friendship Shelter, the only homeless shelter in Laguna. Henderson, who originally suggested to Kennedy that she work with the Homeless Issues Task Force, said he supports the idea of the "Homeless Awareness Reading."

"I think, in a city which has strong links with the arts, this is an interesting way of approaching (homelessness)," Henderson said. "People tend to think of homelessness in stereotypical terms, and they need to think of it in personal terms. People do not know or understand how difficult it is for people of low incomes to live in Orange County, and probably beyond. I don't think it's getting any better, and I'm afraid it's bound to get worse."

John Brugaletta, a Cal State Fullerton English professor and poet, said he will read poems on several different themes, including some about homelessness.

"I feel there is a need for raising people's awareness of the homeless," said Brugaletta, who's a regular volunteer at a Fullerton soup kitchen. "I'm not sure how effective a poetry reading is for doing this, but I think everybody ought to be doing everything they can. This is what poets can do."

Terri Brint Joseph, a Chapman College English professor, said she'll read a number of poems about "homes, how I've felt about places I've lived, what a home can mean to us."

Homelessness is a good theme for a writer, Joseph said. "It's so emotionally laden. I think part of us is always a stranger, and isn't fully attached or fully related to those around us. I think that experience is somehow related to literal homelessness."

Kennedy's research has shown her that there's plenty of literal homelessness in Orange County, which has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Not only is there a dearth of affordable housing (in her report, affordable housing is defined as housing that takes less than 60% of your income to maintain), but "I've found so many people who are literally just one paycheck away from homelessness," Kennedy said. The first real financial emergency could put these people on the street, she noted.

"Millions of dollars are given in Orange County to keep pieces of sculpture, pots, photos, paintings in a museum," she said. "Why can't those same (grant-giving) corporations give money to the homeless? I just don't understand the mentality that cannot help people in need."

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