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Giving the Homeless a Voice

As she had done so many times before, clinical psychologist Miriam Yezbick found herself listening to a woman describe her life's obstacles. But instead of taking notes in an office at her St. Clair Shores' practice, Yezbick listened to this case in the Detroit Rescue Mission. The Detroit woman spoke at length of losing her home and her child. She spoke of sleeping with strangers for money, and of getting raped repeatedly. But she still found reasons to call her life “blessed.” After all, one of her rapists had tried to kill her, and failed. And she had God.  Yezbick listened, and then she did something different. Instead of filling out paperwork or scheduling another meeting, she became an actor for a special performance called “Unheard Voices.” She tied a blue bandana to her head, and stepped on stage in front of 500 theater-goers to tell this woman's story.

Yezbick was one of 17 performers speaking for Detroit's homeless in a riveting production by the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company this past weekend. Whether portraying a 17-year-old kid with HIV or a 53-year-old man with four sons, the actors in “Unheard Voices” drew their words from intimate interviews with the homeless, most of which were conducted by the performers themselves.

Yolanda Fleischer, a retiring UDM faculty member, conceived and directed “Unheard Voices” with the hope that it would shatter common stereotypes of the homeless. Sure, the production included tales of crimes and addictions that those who judge the homeless might expect. But each tale was real and specific, and the tales of the well-educated, the ambitious, and the wealthy who'd fallen into homelessness defied all sterotypes. One Detroiter made $60,000 a year before her company shut down and she fell all the way to the street.  Now, she owns her own business. And 56-year-old Anita is a mother who worked up to 15 hours a day and put her son through college before becoming homeless. But if there's a silver lining to her tale, it's that Anita now believes she was meant to experience homelessness so that as to help others: “I used to say, ‘Why am I out here?' Now I say, ‘Why not?'” Anita (played by Nancy Elizabeth-Kammer) said.  “Homeless means no home—nothing else.”

Other actors portrayed homeless people who wanted to believe in ways out of the crisis. “With all these schools that have closed,” asked a 37-year-old homeless man named Andre (portrayed by Jason Echols), “you can't open up a facility to house homeless people?”  And 49-year-old Dave (played by Greg Trzaskoma) added, “We need more jobs in our state. If there were more jobs there would be less homeless people. That's it.”

The entire production, which consisted of three performances and a silent auction, raised over $8,000 for the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (H.A.N.D.) and collected enough clothing donations to fill a 22-foot truck for the Salvation Army. The UDM Theatre Company is still receiving financial donations for the homeless.

(For information on donating to H.A.N.D., contact Greg Grobis at grobisgj@udmercy.edu.)

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