Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: The homeless have their stories — and now they can tell them

Jordan Kemper wasn’t aware the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put $210,000 into the StoryCorps program this spring to let homeless families in three Northwest counties tell their stories.

She was busy rebuilding her life.

As it turned out, Kemper and her sons Hunter, 5, and Owen, 2, were among the perfect candidates for the project.

“The Gates Foundation was looking for stories from families who were homeless and they wanted diversity,” said Alan Brown, director of the Phoenix Housing Network. “That meant families who were being served by our agency or others — those who were homeless and those who had been in the past.

“Their funding will give 30 families in each of three counties — Pierce, King and Snohomish — the opportunity to tell their stories.”

One of those will be Jordan Kemper’s.

Last August, her military marriage disintegrated, and she and her children left home under traumatic circumstances; she declined to go into details.

For three or four nights, she stayed with a friend.

“Then I realized I really was homeless,” she said. “I legitimately had nowhere to go. The Phoenix Housing Project stepped in, and we began sleeping in different churches. Hunter thought it was a blast. He said we were living in castles.”

Between August and October, the family moved from one church to another each night — nine in all, in the Tacoma-Puyallup area. At each church, volunteers would have a bed ready, a dinner prepared and a breakfast the next morning.

“It was a strange experience, because there would be men and women there each night, and if you woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to get a glass of water or use the bathroom, you had to decide whether you wanted to be seen in your pajamas,” Kemper said.

“The kindness of those volunteers continually surprised me. Some of them brought elaborate meals from their home, other times we’d have spaghetti made in the church kitchen,” she said. “I probably gained weight.”

For StoryCorps, Jordan and members of 29 other Pierce County families will tell their stories at the Catholic Community Services Center in Tacoma between July 15-19.

Founded in 2003, StoryCorps has recorded 51,585 interviews on hundreds of topics and been part of 496 broadcasts. National Public Radio fans know about StoryCorps from the regular Morning Edition segment.

Brown said Catholic Community Services is looking for homeless people to share their stories in the StoryCorps recording booth.

“There are all kinds of reason people become homeless, all kinds of experiences they deal with,” Brown said. “We can use statistics and data, but people telling their own stories, that’s more personal.”

Given the subject, many of the stories told will be heart-wrenching. Jordan Kemper’s won’t be one of them.

“I got lucky,” she said. “Phoenix got an apartment for me in October, and I got a full-time job the next month. I’m a licensed skin care therapist — an esthetician — and I began working for a spa.”

“I got financial help. If I hadn’t, I’d have had to come up with $2,500 each month for rent and childcare.”

Last month, the spa franchise where Kemper was working closed. She was invited to remain on staff, but only if she could commute to Bellevue or Redmond.

“I’m looking for work,” she said.

While her story is far from complete, the 26-year-old has a five-year plan to return to the kind of life she left behind when she and the boys left her ex-husband.

“I want to be where I’d have been if we were never displaced,” Kemper said. “I want to have a house. I want to have no reason for assistance, to pay for my own health care, pay my own bills.

“That doesn’t sound fun, but it sounds good.”

At this point, while some people know her story, most do not.

“It was a chapter in my life, it doesn’t define me,” she said. “A lot of people have no idea I was in a homeless shelter, because it wasn’t relevant to share.

“This morning I made it out the door, with my brilliant kids bathed, their lunches made. I read a lot. I’ve started playing the piano again. I’d like to get more schooling. I’ll find work.

“Yes, I’ve been through something I never expected to deal with. Overall, I’m pretty darn happy.”